Duncan Graham chats to Indonesia’s former education minister, Anies Baswedan, about his achievements, why he was suddenly sacked and changes to education policy.

In late July Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo abruptly sacked Dr Anies Baswedan from his job as Minister for Education and Culture.

Now he’s a surprise candidate for the governorship of Jakarta with the backing of the Gerindra Party led by Prabowo Subianto, the former general who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2014.

Before he tossed his peci into the ring Baswedan spoke to me about his dismissal from the Ministry.

“During the following days, neighbours and friends dropped by. One said her daughter’s homework included the question: ‘Why shouldn’t the Minister for Education and Culture be reinstated?” he says.

“This recognition has been the reward of serving the government for 21 months, though I expected 60. When I told my staff they had a new boss many cried, though I didn’t.

“The response has been astonishing. It’s like being at my own funeral and hearing the eulogies. Teachers, pupils, students everywhere, people I’ve never met, have been thanking me. ”

They’ve also been asking why the former Rector of Paramadina University handpicked by his old friend President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo to revive Indonesia’s sick education system, was politically mugged?

He had an international profile with a gold star personal and professional CV, the cerebral star of Indonesia’s Gen X.  He’d been a student activist protesting the corruption of second President Soeharto’s autocracy before heading overseas as a Fulbright Scholar.

His grandfather, Abdurrahman  Baswedan had been a revolutionary hero, journalist, diplomat and minister in one of first president Soekarno’s cabinets.

Baswedan, 47, would only say that he didn’t see the solar plexus punch coming, and hadn’t had his hand in the till.  He added that he respects the President’s decision, wants no damage done to the “dignity of the process” and that he leaves with his moral and intellectual integrity intact.

He also said he doesn’t know and didn’t ask why he was replaced by Muhadjir Effendy, 60, the former rector of Muhammadiyah University in Malang, adding philosophically: “All jobs come to an end.”

Did an acclaimed scholar fail to apply the ‘why’ question that grounds all academic research?  Baswedan only smiles.  Stonily.

“Companies don’t sack their CEOs when their businesses are going well,” he says.

“Together we had transformed the Ministry into a working culture of commitment to educational reform for the betterment of the nation.  That’s rare.”

There’s endless speculation, and some facts.  His US doctorate was in political science, but Baswedan carried no party card. So no patron (or matron) to tell the President to rethink.

He spent more time in the Ministry with educators than in the Palace among plotters. He was eclipsing others with publicity, though he denied seeking the spotlight and rejected suggestions of political ambition.

Education is a powerful portfolio, handling at least 20 per cent of the nation’s budget. It’s also a political football; anyone who has been to school knows what’s wrong with the system and how to fix it.

This creates what Baswedan called the “zigzag of policy decisions when long-term stability is required – which should be left out of politics.”

But the founder of Indonesia Mengajar, a non-profit voluntary national service for young teachers serving in remote schools for a year, understood better than most and had proven solutions.

Which might have been the undoing of the economist, author and agitator, once listed by the US business magazine Forbes as among the world’s top 100 public intellectuals.

Until either Baswedan or Jokowi reveal the reason he was knifed perhaps Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a guide. The wary general whispers that his friend Cassius ‘thinks too much. Such men are dangerous’.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Baswedan’s fall came just after one of his greatest triumphs.  He asked families to attend school opening day with their kids so they could get engaged with education. They responded in tens of thousands – and the story got international attention.

Baswedan said he’s had overseas job offers. When asked whether Indonesia can afford to lose exceptional talent, the normally quick-tongued educator let the question hang before responding rhetorically: “What do you think?”

“We had 44 breakthroughs with getting children to read each day as the most important,” he adds. “We also insisted on evaluating teachers and improving their skills. Only 57 per cent were graded well – but we couldn’t sack the others because they are civil servants.

“How do you develop a successful school where children learn well?  Just create an environment with one word: Fun. That requires leadership.  If learning isn’t fun it’s torture. Then teachers have failed.

“We’ve engaged with community libraries to create 6,000 ‘Reading Houses’. We still have problems with space that must be addressed. We’ve stopped brutality.  There were zero deaths and hospitalisations last year from hazing.

“The idea that children should be hit is morally and legally wrong. Violence begets violence. We’ve created safe learning environments and eliminated the belief that the more you suffer, the better you learn.

“The National Exam, which put huge pressure on students, has been changed. There’s no minimum passing grade, but a minimum score for each subject.

“Since education was decentralised (after the fall of Soeharto in 1998) the performance of the regions hadn’t been evaluated.  We produced an education balance sheet.

“This showed some authorities spend only Rp 37,000 (US$ 2.80) per student annually. Jakarta spent Rp 6 million (US$ 454) yet got a worse result than Yogyakarta’s Rp 500,000 (US$ 38) budget. We exposed the flaws.”

Changes in education policy don’t come without strife – the latest being plans to lengthen the school day arousing parents to protest.

“Not my policy,” says Baswedan. “We wanted to shorten the time at school.

“The world has changed. It’s a new era, no longer about absorbing facts but creative thinking.  Education liberates, indoctrination suppresses.

“I’m not talking about programs.  I’m talking about a movement.”

Will his changes survive?

“I hope so.”

The Jakarta gubernatorial election will be held next February. Three pairs of candidates are contesting. Surveys show the present leader is the incumbent Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama backed by the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle). This is the party of President Jokowi, the former Jakarta Governor. Ahok’s ethnicity and religion (he’s a Protestant Chinese) is allegedly an issue for some electors.

Baswedan is coupled with Sandiaga Uno, reported to be one of Indonesia’s richest men. In the 2012 election 4.6 million of Jakarta’s seven million voters went to the polls.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.