The iPhone or the App: Why Indonesia Risks Being Nudged out of the Tech Game

The iPhone or the App: Why Indonesia Risks Being Nudged out of the Tech Game
REUTERS/Garry Lotulung

What you need to know

It’s not the iPhones Indonesia should make it’s the apps on the phones, writes Jeffrey Hutton.

If Sujaelani, the principal of No. 12 National Junior High School in South Jakarta could afford it he’d have more computers and wireless Internet available throughout his school. Instead his 840 pupils have access to 25 computers and limited wifi.

“It’s ironic because this is the age of technology, no?” says the 49- year- old educator fresh from teaching a gym class.

“We don’t get enough money.”

This week, I caught up with Sujaelani, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name, shortly after the publication of the sixth Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The Economist did a good job summarizing the results.

The survey suggests Indonesia ranked 65 out of 72 participating countries and territories. Worse, it was last – by far – among ASEAN countries, just as restrictions ease on movement of some goods like car parts and professions such as doctors or engineers, say. The upshot? In this more competitive environment Indonesian graduates risk being edged out of higher paying jobs by their ASEAN peers.

PISA tested skills in math, science and reading among 15-year-olds with at least six years of formal education. Vietnam ranked 22 in the PISA survey just behind Australia.

I point out Vietnam and not, say, Singapore, which took top marks in the survey, because Vietnam represents the path not taken for Indonesia. Since the 1980s Vietnam broke with communist orthodoxy and liberalized, wooing manufacturers by setting up exclusive economic zones. Indonesia’s focus then was on commodity exports as well as oil and gas.

Indonesia’s spending on education hasn’t kept pace with its ASEAN neighbors. Data from the World Bank suggests that as a percentage of per capita GDP Vietnam spends almost twice as much on primary school education as Indonesia. Sujaelani says he gets a total of about US$20 per student per month from the government of Indonesian and the city of Jakarta.

A poorly trained workforce bodes ill for plans for some Indonesian cabinet ministers to shift its focus to, say software development rather than electronics manufacturing. It’s not the iPhones Indonesia should make it’s the apps on the phones.

“Let’s catch the next cycle,” Tom Lembong, chairman of the Investment Coordinating Board, told me two weeks after he’d been appointed to oversee foreign capital into the country.

Someone should tell Indonesia’s youngsters, then, because the PISA results suggest they are not keen on a job in science or technology. Among the results it found that only 8 percent of Indonesian boys expected to a job in science or IT compared with 21 percent for their peers in Vietnam. (Indonesian and Vietnamese girls polled 22 percent and 18 percent respectively).

Junior High School No. 12 – a stone’s throw from my apartment – seemed like a good place to go find out what youngsters wanted instead. Nestled in a leafy neighborhood sprinkled with small embassies the school draws on a relatively well off local population. On a recent rainy afternoon a group of seven boys, all aged 13 and waiting for rides home after school, go some way to back up the findings. One lanky fellow, named Juan, speaking in English, says he’s taken a shine to physics and reckons he’d like to be a doctor. The rest wanted to be pilots. One boy in a mint green school blazer said he would like to be the CEO of Emirates.

“I like the A380,” he told me told me referring to the Airbus jetliner.

Indonesian youngsters are every bit as ambitious and bright as their peers elsewhere but if their leaders want them to soar, they will need to do their homework.

Editor: Edward White