Why We Should Have ‘Revolusi Mental’ in Our Reading Habit

Reading Light/ Ryan Pendleton

by: Harry Febrian

This article was first published on the Global Indonesian Voices

Being a lecturer, there’s a sense of horror occupying my mind every time a new semester starts. This feeling, which I believe is also experienced by most of my fellow lecturers, is due to one simple reason: how to convince the students to read a book.

It’s supposed to be a normal thing. Lecturer uses a book to prepare teaching material and student read it before class. As the class begins, they will discuss the material and lively discussion will kick in. Everything seems perfectly fine.

Except it rarely does.

In fact, convincing students to read books becomes one terrifying task for a lecturer. I usually spent 15-20 minutes of my first class trying to persuade my student of how important it is for them to read – juggling my argument from physiological (how it improves your brain cell), emotion (it makes you relax), to psychological (it increases your empathy) perspectives and so on.

This semester, I got additional ammunition: ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). It is imperative, I said, that we read a book because we will have to compete with our neighboring countries, which are definitely hungry to hunt a jobs in Indonesia due to its economical growth prospect.

And some, if not most of these new competitors, will be equipped better in the terms of language. Malaysian usually can speak three languages: Malay, Chinese, and English. Philippine citizens have already become popular choice for English teaching in Indonesia. If we want to win from them, we must improve our competitiveness. And reading is one way to achieve that.

I told my students one survey about reading habit I found when I was still doing my graduate study in Taiwan. A Report from Taiwan’s Minister of Culture caused uproar within the public. Why? Because it revealed that on average, Taiwanese read only two books per year (which later be debated), compared with 10 books per person per year in France; 10.8 books in South Korea, 9.2 books in Singapore; between 10 and 15 books in Israel. These numbers are enough to startle the country. Minister of Culture and Minister of Education were being urged to cooperate to tackle this issue. Some publication lamenting about “why Taiwanese doesn’t read anymore.”

I thought I already made a good case by showing them how Taiwanese are in panic when their people only read two books per year. I add some speculation perhaps in Malaysia, Thailand, or Philippines, the number would vary from 3-4 books per year, and maybe Indonesia is around 2-3, so we can still catch up if we started reading now. I smile and say in my heart: this should win my student.

The next morning, I spent time in library enjoying some news before starting a long day of lecturing. There, in a small one paragraph column on the left corner of the page, I read a newest report citing UNESCO about reading habit in Indonesia.

I was aghast. The number of books read by Indonesian student per year, is zero.

It wasn’t until I read the explanation from Retno Lestyarti, General Secretary of Federasi Serikat Guru Indonesia, that I can comprehend the data. It turns out that Indonesian students can only read averagely 27 pages of book per year (excluding the textbook). In other word, our student can only read one page of book per 15 days. That’s the tragedy of zero book read per year.

Not much I can get about this data, except one or two other news in online media. This perhaps reflects how this issue is considered: unimportant. Not only by student, but also Indonesian in general. There is no uproar, no public debate, no government official lamenting the problem. Nothing. It just a small one paragraph column in the left corner of newspaper page.

So what to do?

A lot, but first and foremost, is creating the awareness.

This issue needs to be raised and the government must step in seriously and show the political willingness to solve the problem. The new appointed Culture and Elementary and Secondary Education Minister Anies Baswedan must prioritise this issue.

As a fellow lecturer, Anies surely understand how important reading is. Anies once said that he was a book lover, telling how when he was a child he desperately wants to ride a bicycle. His parent then “tricked” him by letting him, only if he rides it to library. This implicitly directed him to read a book. Later, he known and inspired by many great figures such as Agus Salim through the book he read in the library.

Second, improving human resources. The foundation of reading books habit must be build from early age throughout the elementary and secondary school. The problem is, teachers often lack the creativity needed in luring students to read. Indonesian language and literature becomes a boring subject. Therefore, teachers needed to be trained so that they can be more innovative in teaching the subject.

Third, provide accessibility to books. The reality is, there are only around 2,500 libraries in Indonesia. This is approximate one library for every 100,000 people in the country. In America, there is one library for every 18,000 people, while in Japan there is one for every 40,500 people. Another number shows that we have 3,000 elementary and junior high schools, but only 5% of them have a library. It is a sad number but there’s no excuse.

If the government has their hand full on this, they can work together with a non-profit foundation that focuses on providing free books to read, such as Ester Jusuf’s Taman Bacaan Seruni or Asma Nadia’s Rumah Baca.

Moreover, the classical tax problem must also be tackled. Instead of “sucking” tax from the publishing house, the government should relieve them from tax, especially across four fundamental components of book production: paper, flat, ink, and publishing tariff. If necessary, publishing houses should be subsidized so book’s prices will be lower.

There is indeed no silver bullet to cure this problem. But as the motto of our new government, ‘Revolusi Mental’, we also need it in this context.

Revolusi implies a sense of urgency, and it can be seen in the recent speech by Anies, titled ‘Emergency in Indonesian Education’. People put a big hope with him as the new Minister, and so do I.

Perhaps, when another semester starts, that sense of horror will eventually turn into a joy and a cheerful feeling of reading a book. Of course together with my student.


The writer is a communications research coordinator and a media and journalism lecturer at Multimedia Nusantara University, Serpong, Banten.

Published by harryfebrian

a mediocre. love to read and write.

3 thoughts on “Why We Should Have ‘Revolusi Mental’ in Our Reading Habit

  1. Hi, Prof. Harry! I’m currently doing a research on reading habits in English and academic achievement of Indonesian students for my master’s degree in Education. You mentioned that you read a UNESCO study where you found out that Indonesian students read “zero” books, or only 27 pages per year. May I know which UNESCO study is this? What year was it published? I would really appreciate your reply. This would surely help my study and my goal of spreading the information about the state of reading habits in Indonesia, and hopefully help government officials in the education ministry to attend to this problem on Indonesians’ reading habits. I agree with you that the government should step in to make sure that schools have good reading programs to encourage students to read. It is also interesting to find out that even librarians in Indonesia do not have good reading habits. Thank you very much in advance.

    I am also interested in getting in touch with you to further discuss this issue. I can also be reached at leo_veridiano@yahoo.com.

  2. It is a wonderful read and I do feel you as a fellow lecturer. Making reading reports doesn’t seem to work. Even reports are plagiarized, even when I sternly warned them that any form of plagiarism will be punished with an F. Yet every semester there would always be students who plagiarize.

    Anyway, wonderful piece!

    1. Hi Vincent, kinda glad to know other lecturer shared the same feeling (read: problem :D). Reading (and writing) which used to be a basic skill, now become a pretty challenging for students. Thanks for coming by and spent some time to read here!

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