Posted by: biblioglobal | March 12, 2013

Indonesia: The value of an education (Book-from-every-country #35)

If you check out the Goodreads page for James Herriot’s book If Only They Could Talk (the first half of All Creatures Great and Small), you might wonder why there are so many reviews in Indonesian. It turns out that reading If Only They Could Talk cures the broken heart of the main character in The Rainbow Troops, the all time best-selling book in Indonesia*.

The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

Translated from the Indonesian by Angie Kilbane

The Rainbow Troops is an autobiographical novel about 10 classmates (the Rainbow Troop) and their teacher at a small, impoverished Muslim school on the island of Belitung in Indonesia. Belitung is rich in tin, a fact that shapes the whole society. Life in the village is more or less run by the tin mining company. As a child, your parents are either staff living in the luxurious estate or laborers living in the village. Village kids mostly work to help support their families, rather than going to school, but the Rainbow Troops and their teacher defy the expectations.

It reads very much like a Bollywood movie or a Broadway musical, complete with simple morality, unlikely triumphs, and the occasional plot hole. I felt like the book could have burst out into song and dance at any moment! The Rainbow Troops was in fact made into a movie, complete with musical numbers and became the highest grossing film ever in Indonesia. I’m curious to watch it if I can find a way to do so. Given how movie-like the book felt, it might be one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book. TheRainbowTroopsFilm2

A scene from the film version

Scenes from the film version of The Rainbow Troops

Indonesia is a ‘melting pot’ country, with influences from lot of cultures. The Rainbow Troop members are mostly ethnically Malay, but the village also includes people of Chinese origin and two more indigenous groups that are identified as ‘sawang’ and ‘sarong’ people. Although the groups are distinct, they all seem to get along. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the description of the ‘snatching festival’ as part of a Chinese holiday in which all the groups took part. Piles of cookware, clothing, and other useful items were piled onto three tables. At a given signal everyone could run in and grab whatever they wanted. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues!

The book takes an interesting perspective on the value of education. Many of the members of The Rainbow Troop end up in manual labor or other jobs that don’t really take advantage of their education. But the author argues that their education was important regardless of its economic effect. Through their teacher’s selfless efforts the students gained a happy childhood, an opportunity for knowledge and a life ethic. Though I wonder whether the economic benefits might not also have been larger than Andrea Hirata perceived, I’m certainly on board with the idea that the value of education goes far beyond economic benefits. It is easy to quantify the value of education in terms of dollars earned and GDP, but those aren’t the only things that matter. The book concludes with a sentence from the Indonesian constitution:

“Every citizen has the right to an education.”


*It has sold 5 million legal copies. Apparently it also sold 15 million illegal copies. Andrea Hirata has said in interviews that in the future he will write in English instead of Indonesian because of the piracy problem. I find that very sad.


  1. wow that is a lot of piracy! Sounds like an interesting read about a place I don’t know a lot about. Thanks for the review.

    • Yeah, I was quite amazed when I read that statistic. I have a hard time feeling too sorry for this particular author since he was clearly quite successful regardless, but if that much piracy is the norm, I imagine it has worse consequences for the less wildly popular authors.

  2. Interesting, I will be also looking forward to watching the movie. You are certainly spot on with
    “I’m certainly on board with the idea that the value of education goes far beyond economic benefits. It is easy to quantify the value of education in terms of dollars earned and GDP, but those aren’t the only things that matter”

    And gosh, the piracy is way off. What a pity.

    • If you watch the movie, I’ll be curious to know what you think.

      Since some countries a trying to use Gross National Happiness as a measure these days, it would be interesting to see the impact of education on that scale. I wonder if anyone has tried to measure that.

  3. I guess in thinking about it, Indonesia is a country I don’t know much about. I feel like this book would be a good introduction. Also–throughout this project have you found that reading one book about a country leads to you wanting to read more and more books about it? Is your TBR list overflowing by now?

    • I definitely find myself wanting to read more about many of the countries! Indonesia and Malaysia are two places that I’m really interested in now. I try not to let my TBR list overflow though. I decided to limit it to 100 books, which is mostly filled with books for countries I haven’t read about yet. I suppose that just means I keep another TBR list in my brain of all the other books I want to read!

  4. When I was still staying in Singapore, I was invited a few times to take a boat and visit Indonesia but I’ve always had other commitments. Reading your review somehow reminded me of what I’ve missed. This book sounds interesting. I’d definitely check it out. It’s interesting how education is viewed and valued in other countries. Thanks for the review!

  5. Sounds like a nice pick.
    The education topic sounds interesting. There is a lot of issues in the education in Indonesia, I wonder what’s his experience.
    As for the piracy, nobody lashes an eye when you copy the whole book (and it’s still cheaper than buying a new one.) But what surprised me the most were shops with pirated films/tv series/music in a shopping mall, openly. The cost of a DVD with Korean drama was like 200.000 IDR, the cost of pirated, up to 40.000 IDR (starting from 10.000), I think.
    Andrea Hirata sounds quite naive if he thinks publishing in English will stop piracy. Ok, many Indonesians will drop off, for the lack of English language skills, but it won’t end piracy. It’ll be easier for people in other parts of the world to get pirated books. I know that this is his work, he earn his living writing books etc. but 1) in Indonesia it’s good that somebody is reading at all, even pirated 2) not everybody in the world can afford buying a book from another country. 3) even if people want to buy, there are sometimes lots of obstacles, so in the end it’s easier to get the illegal download 4) now they get pirated, in the future (if they like) they’ll buy.
    The 5 million copies is worldwide. I wonder how they counted “illegally sold” (there is no thing like that, as illegal downloads are rather for free).

    • I agree that publishing in English won’t stop piracy, but I’m less willing to just accept piracy than you are. I am however in favor of making less expensive editions available in lower income countries and in favor of libraries everywhere!

      • Libraries in every country. If that’d be so easy. How do you do that when people aren’t interested/don’t need to read books in general?
        I’m happy when Indonesians read books, illegal or not, because it was hard to spot anybody in public reading books in my town. Except people on Goodreads, I had nobody to talk about books.

        How you will define lower income countries? Who will decide if it’s ok for this and this country to get cheaper books?
        Do you know what kind of books get the cheaper version? (I saw some books for 3-7$ in Poland). Except Murakami, I saw nothing I’d read as a book for each country. Because most of it was “white-person’s-perspective on..” Either it was American romance/crime story, or “the life in harem” etc. I think the way you hope for the cheap literature is utopic.

        So you’re more willing to accept high prices and limits in getting stuff based solely on your location? I often have cases, where I’d like to buy stuff legally, but I live in the wrong country. I can’t get some ebooks from Amazon, I can’t get mp3, I can’t get films (streaming/download, DVD regions)… I can’t watch some things online because I’m using “wrong OS” (ie not Win nor iOS). Do you really expect me to import every damn thing in physical form from abroad? I try to stay as legal as possible, but the companies don’t help me either.
        We had a research in Poland that show those people who often get “illegally” stuff on internet will likely participate more in the paid culture, because they’re more interested in culture than a regular person.
        Sure, some people get “free stuff” because their priorities for culture are on the lower end.

      • As I was replying to your first post, I had a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the privileged perspective I was coming from. I ignored that feeling and went ahead with my reply. Your response does a very good job of explaining how much more attention I should have paid to that nagging feeling. Thanks for enlightening me.

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