The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, June 06, 2006



“If we really want to stop corruption in this country then we have to start with the very young.

“They must be taught the importance of honesty, and it’s best to do that in pre-school. Honesty should be the foundation stone for everyone’s life – it’s the key to building character.”

It’s the sad experience of journalists to hear similar statements from high-ranking people delivered from the comfort of their lavish homes where their questionable lifestyle is clearly far above their means.

That’s not the case with Professor Harjono Soedigdomarto and his wife Sri Rahajeng. They still live in the old family home in Surabaya using the same furniture from long ago. The car is ready for retirement. There are no signs of opulence.

At his 88th birthday celebrations last month (May) Harjono’s former colleagues thought it useful to pass around the hat and muster Rp 50 million (US $5,500) for the couple to enjoy their retirement.

In Javanese culture 88 (Sebelas Windu) is a special moment in anyone’s life. In this case the moment was for a special person.

Harjono is that rare individual who can speak of nation building, public service and communal honesty without his listeners masking a cynical sneer behind a polite cough.

For the people of East Java know this man has walked the talk.

More than 30 years ago the couple visited Japan, but this was to be no junket. They got out and about and were astonished at that nation’s enthusiasm for education – liberally backed by government support. As a doctor Harjono knew the importance of early childhood care.

As head of the government’s family planning program in East Java (he’s an obstetrician and gynaecologist) Harjono also understood the reality of life in the villages. Here the traditional philosophy of banyak anak, banyak rezeki (many children, much fortune) was a massive obstacle to the government’s message of dua anak cukup (two children are enough). Particularly when everyone knew the then President Suharto had six kids.

Villagers wanted big families to care for them in old age and because they expected some infants to die young.

The couple started the Bina Anaprasa village pre-school program to deliver early education to the children and facts to the parents. Malnutrition and diseases caused through poor hygiene were killing thousands yet these conditions could be easily reversed with training and personal discipline.

Statistics compiled by the US show that although the mortality rate for children under five in Indonesia has dropped, it’s still around 34 per 1,000 births. In Singapore the figure is just over 2 per 1,000.

There are now more than 300 Bina Anaprasa pre-schools across the country. More could be started if the government relaxed its building and staff requirements, according to Harjono.

“Villagers appreciate the importance of early childhood education,” he said. “We shouldn’t be waiting around for the right building, the appropriate documents and the university-trained teacher.

“The need is now. A school under a tree can be enough. We need to think big, act now and start small. The golden years from birth to five are critical for health and learning.”

So with help from the international aid agency Plan International, Bina Anaprasa has been fast-tracking teachers through a three-month intensive course in a bid to keep the movement growing.

Prestige didn’t come easily. Harjono was a bright child born into a poor family. To keep her husband studying Sri had to sell her clothes and jewellery. He was dragooned into the Japanese army of occupation and blown up in the war against the Dutch while transferring patients to a hospital.

Although he’s no longer working on the family planning program Harjono watches the decline in the service since decentralisation with regret, knowing it’s integral to welfare and education.

Regional governments are allegedly not giving the program a high priority and have cut funds.

“Girls aged 15 are still having babies,” he said. “That’s far too young for them and the child – they should wait till they’re in their 20s. Indonesian men don’t like using condoms because it decreases sensation and women are worried about hormonal injections making them fat. The pill isn’t popular because it’s easily forgotten.

“Sterilisation after the family is complete is best. It’s simpler to sterilise men, but that’s not popular. The family planning program needs to be reinstated.”

Sri Rahajeng was not content to fry bananas and grind coffee for her busy husband. She started the Kalia Mulia school for the deaf in Surabaya with 26 students and two teachers. The school now employs 66 teachers handling more than 200 pupils.

Sri, 83, still teaches part-time. “I love working – I have to keep busy,” she said. Although Harjono’s mind remains sharp he’s having trouble with his knees and uses a stick to move around. Like all doctors his suffering is sharper because he knows how the body crumbles as the years pass.

Despite his affliction he stood unaided for 15 minutes to give a speech at yet another function this month (June) to celebrate his achievements. As usual he accepted the accolades with humility and humor. He used the opportunity to condemn corruption, urge honesty and concluded: “It’s not the years of life which count, it’s the life in the years.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 June 2006)




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