The real reasons why most Indonesians don’t like to read
As always, the issue is way more complicated than we’d like to think. We have a long political and socioeconomic history which has turned us into a nation which famously – or rather, infamously, doesn’t read.
Essay - First article of a three-part series | Read the second part here
A few months ago, I was having dinner with a couple Indonesian friends in a warung nasi campur in Ubud, Bali, an Indonesian tourist town I happened to be staying and working in at that time. We were discussing the works of Indonesian authors which have been translated into English (specifically: Eka Kurniawan and Pramoedya Ananta Toer) and how these authors have explored the legacy of colonialism.
Then, suddenly a strange old white man walked up to us and said something like: “Wow, this is the first time I heard Indonesians talking about books.” And then, he launched into a long, unsolicited lecture (monologue?) about Indonesians’ poor reading habits. Maybe he thought we were his grandchildren. After he’d left, my friend then told me how typical it was for Westerners to give Indonesians such backhanded compliments. “If he rarely meets any Indonesians who like to read, maybe he simply hasn’t hung out with enough Indonesians,” my friend said, displeased.
A senior Indonesian author recently told me about having a similar experience: a Westerner spoke to her in a very condescending manner about just “how poor” Indonesians were in terms of reading habits when she was attending a literary event in Europe.
Only 1 out of 1,000 Indonesians likes to read
We’re a bit too familiar with the statistics highlighting Indonesians’ poor reading habits. The most frequently cited one is a 2016 survey by the Central Connecticut State University, which ranked Indonesia 60th out of 61 countries in terms of reading interest. Another statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stated that Indonesians’ reading habits only stood at 0.001 percent. Out of 1,000 Indonesians, only one likes to read.
A local news portal used a less-than-flattering headline to summarize this issue: Masyarakat Indonesia, Malas Baca Tapi Cerewet di Medsos (Indonesians: Too Lazy to Read, Too Chatty on Social Media). Ouch. An Indonesian cultural center once used this hashtag to promote its literary event on Instagram: #bacadulubarungomong (which I translated poorly as first you read, then you bullshit). I wonder if next time they will come up with the hashtag #mingkemdulusebelumbaca (shut your pie hole before you read). Sometimes, we Indonesians can also be too hard on ourselves.
This article seeks to help us give ourselves a break. The reason most Indonesians do not read is not because our nation is inherently “backward” or “uncultured” or “ungentrified”. This problem is, at its roots, very systemic, which has to do with our socioeconomic inequality and political history. In other words, this is not our fault, yet we’re responsible to take actions to improve this situation.
Kata 'Tusndoku' berasal dari Bahasa Jepang dan merujuk pada kebiasaan membeli - lalu menumpuk buku, tanpa membacanya. Koleksi-koleksi debuan itu disebut Tsundoku oleh penutur bahasa Jepang. | Ilustrasi: Vellencia Tandra
Books as luxury items; reading as luxury activity
First of all, when we’re talking about reading, we’re talking about privilege. Access to books is highly concentrated in the Java island, particularly in Jakarta. Many parts of Indonesia do not have public libraries. Major bookstores exist only in capital cities. And again, what good can come from bookstores when you don’t have money to even buy books?
It's not that Indonesians are inherently uninterested in reading, they just don't have access to books
Access to reading materials also has to do with one’s spending powers. Books are luxury items. My friends from Jakarta and I are so very privileged to have been born to the city middle-upper class families (which is like winning a lottery), which has basically given us a head start to pursuing a career in the capital city and enjoying our expensive hobby, sitting down in expensive cafes in the posh South Jakarta area while talking about, among other things, poverty.
The Pustaka Bergerak (Mobile Library) initiative, founded by the late Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka, who recently passed away, has established more than 17,000 branches across the nation’s 38 provinces to fill this gap. In a 2018 interview with me for The Jakarta Post, he said: “it’s not that Indonesians are inherently uninterested in reading; they just don’t have access to books.”
The Pustaka Bergerak activists know all too well that giving people books to read is not enough. They also attempt to raise these people’s interest by engaging them in storytelling and other interactive activities.
Yays, neighs to reading: A volunteer of the Pustaka Bergerak initiative uses his horse to distribute books for children in a remote area near Mount Slamet in Central Java. | Photo: Pustaka Bergerak
I’d also like to think that reading is in actuality a very privileged activity, a luxury that the middle-upper class individuals can enjoy. I recently read an essay called “Work-Life Balance Should Not Be a Class Privilege” written by Singaporean sociologist Teo You Yenn in her magnificent 2018 essay collection This is What Inequality Looks Like.
In that essay, she argued that the leisure time that white-collar workers normally take for granted is actually hard to come by among blue-collar workers. As blue-collar workers are more vulnerable to exploitation (including long hours, unpredictable shifts), they often struggle with taking care of their children, let alone having leisure time. By the time they finished their 15-hour shift at the assembly line for instance, I wonder if they still have the mental or physical bandwidth to read books?
Access to books alone is not enough
Pustaka Bergerak and so many other similar initiatives have actually filled a big gap in our national education system, which does not encourage students to read widely. Our curriculum does not require students to read a certain number of longform books (other than the school textbooks, which only feed us facts and figures to memorize by rote, of course!) if they want to graduate.
Our curriculum also does not incorporate Literary Studies, in which students are required to read works of literature, write critical essays about them, or debate over them. What we have is just an Indonesian language subject, in which we were told to memorize grammar rules or syntax, or sometimes the names of the great Indonesian classical authors, along with the titles of their poems and novels.
Indonesian language exams contain mostly multiple choice questions, with a paragraph taken out of context from the great Indonesian novels, and the students are then asked to identify the subject, predicate, and object from those sentences (along with the conjunctions sometimes). Why should anyone be surprised that many Indonesians graduate from school without having read a single longform book?
Maybe it is no accident that this education system is also the legacy of the totalitarian New Order regime, which sought to control and depoliticize the minds of its people. The majority of victims who died during the 1965 anti-Communist pogrom were teachers and intellectuals; this was how the regime destroyed our literacy culture from the get-go.
Many books were banned during that era. People were afraid of talking about politics in public. Of course, we were discouraged from reading critical books or study literature, because these books are dangerous, they can basically make us start questioning things and challenging status quo, instead of just being passive, dumb consumers, which aligns with the regime’s free-market agenda.
Pragmatism in higher education and the future of our literacy culture
Fast forward to post-Reformasi 2023, because of this New Order legacy, many of us still remain pretty much passive, gullible consumers, except now mindless consumerism has multiplied beyond just our TV screen, with countless content creators and influencers on social media robbing us of our precious attention spans, bombarding us with the hype we don’t really need.
Writer Leila S. Chudori told me of her experience interviewing the Indonesian Education and Culture Minister Fuad Hassan, who was also known as a public intellectual, for Gadis magazine in the 1980s. When Leila asked him how come Indonesia didn’t have a separate Literary Studies in its curriculum, he simply said: “it’s a given” (memang begitu adanya).
Perhaps the next step we need to take to improve Indonesia’s literacy culture is to lobby the Minister of Education to incorporate required reading and a Literary Studies subject into our curriculum.
Nadiem Makarim, Minister of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology of Indonesia | Photo: Archive ACI
Well, speaking of the Education Ministry. Recently Nadiem Makarim (the minister) announced that he suggested universities scrapping undergraduate thesis as a mandatory requirement to get a Bachelor’s Degree. This also came with an updated competence profile of an undergraduate into someone who at least “is able to understand theoretical concepts from a certain field of knowledge and skills so s/he could solve problems in a procedural manner in line with his/her scope of work (boldface type added for emphasis).”
If the author Tom Nichols, who penned the book The Death of Expertise were here in Indonesia, I am sure he would be the first one to protest this policy. Why? In that book, he argued that the foundational objective of higher education should not simply to produce graduates with the right vocational skills to supply the labor market.
Vocational skills should be taught either on the job or through separate courses, because higher education actually seeks to elucidate a human person, to equip that person with the right thinking skills to help him or her navigate life and relate to others wisely, informed by this ability to be aware of one’s own thinking process and fallacies and correct them. This is actually a very noble objective and I agree with Tom on this. The whole idea of reading tons of books and writing your undergraduate thesis is not to mold you into yet another commodity for the labor market; it’s basically to help you think and inquire in a more disciplined way.
Yet, Nichol lamented this worldwide trend of universities becoming more commercialized and therefore, more pragmatic, trying to justify their high tuition fees by promising prospective students and their parents that they would equip the students with all the professional skills necessary to succeed in the workplace, guaranteeing that the graduates would be able to secure fantastic jobs thanks to the skills they learned in these universities.
At the same time, this pragmatic mindset of universities also aligns with the right-wing, free-market view which has dominated politicians the world over: this idea that the cause of unemployment is a lack of skills, therefore vocational training is the solution. They fail to acknowledge that the reason behind unemployment is due to systemic problems such as: there are simply no jobs to be had, or various types of discriminatory hiring practices, such as ageism.
Sometimes all it takes is simply having a really good teacher who encourages you to read
Yet even amid all the systemic problems with our education, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are anomalies here and there which have basically saved us, Indonesian students, from the darkness of our own ignorance so to speak. Sometimes, like in the case of my friends and I, it comes from parental/familial influence. Having parents or family members who happen to like reading and stuff our houses with books and buy us books as presents really makes a difference.
Sometimes all it takes is simply having a really good teacher who encourages you to read. Indonesian writers like Joko Pinurbo and Lala Bohang have credited their school teachers for instilling a love of reading within them. I had a really good English teacher at Middle School.
How come my English is so good “for an Asian”? - or tales about anomalies which give us hope about the future of our literacy culture
She didn’t teach the main subject; she only taught a side subject poorly labeled by the non-English literate deputy school principal overseeing curriculum as the “Speaking” class (it was a Conversational English class). She actually encouraged us to read books in English to expand our vocabulary, which is highly necessary so we’ll be able to “speaking”. I heeded her advice, starting with trashy novels first of course, due to my low lexical level at that time. Yet, thanks to following her simple advice, not only have I become an avid reader of English-language books, captivated by the music of the English language, I’ve also frequently received the backhanded compliment of how-come-you-speak-English-so-well-as-an-Indonesian-who’s-never-left-his-goddamn-country, particularly by the well-intentioned but somehow misguided Bali bules, or Western-educated Indonesians.
The Indonesian language teachers from the same Middle School I attended actually required us students to write a karya tulis (like an extended essay) on “the extrinsic and intrinsic aspects” of Indonesian novels; of course we had the read the novel in full, else how can we write an extended essay about them? This was not required by our national curriculum, yet the school I went to happened to take the liberties to include this extended essay assignment anyways.
Some of my classmates dissected the Indonesian translations of Kurt Vonnegut; some even analyzed Ayu Utami’s highly controversial Saman! I was assigned to write an essay about a somewhat obscure literary work called Ketika Kubur Itu Selesai Digali (When The Grave’s Been Dug) by a somewhat obscure literary personality A.D. Donggo, telling an absurd story about an old man who’s digging his own grave. Come to think of it, the Middle School I attended in a small town called Pamulang in the outskirts of Jakarta was quite progressive!
So what if we don't have a strong literacy culture?
Going back to our minister: sometimes we don’t have to wait for change to happen from the top down. It can also happen from the bottom up, through these unlikely saviors who basically rescue some of us Indonesian students from the curse of ignorance.
However, all things considered, some questions come to mind: does reading really matter; does it really have a positive impact on people’s lives? So what if we don’t have a strong literacy culture? Perhaps people who ‘advocate’ for improving Indonesia’s literacy culture, myself included, are nothing more but elitist snobs swallowed whole by the Western yardstick of progress? I’ve met so many people who don’t read, yet they are very wise and grounded; on the other hand, reading also doesn’t protect some people I know from becoming bigots or egotists?
I will attempt to delve into my own skepticism in the second article for this series, so stay tuned…
(Sebastian Partogi, Art Calls Indonesia, 04.09.2023)
Sebastian Partogi is an Indonesian writer, journalist, interpreter and translator based in Ubud, Bali. As a literary translator, he has translated the works of Indonesian writers like Ratih Kumala, Djenar Maesa Ayu, Feby Indirani, Angelina Enny and Sindhunata into English. His literary translations have been published in prestigious publications such as Australia's Portside Review and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival's annual bilingual antology of Indonesian writings. He also handles simultaneous and consecutive interpreters for various events held by local NGOs, most notably the Pratisara Bumi Foundation.
Background: Indonesia's extremly low enthusiam for reading
THE NATION WHICH SIMPLY DOESN’T READ - an essay-series by Sebastian Partogi:
(Credits Thumbnail/Picture of Sebastian Partogi: Wienda Parwitasari)