Exclusive: What Indonesia’s education minister learnt from founding Gojek

By Shirley Tay

Interview with Nadiem Makarim, Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture and founder of Gojek.

Nadiem Makarim, Chief Executive Officer, GO-JEK, Indonesia capture during the session: Accelerating Inequality Reduction at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN 2018 in Ha Noi, Viet Nam, September 12, 2018..Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

Nadiem Makarim is a trailblazer in many ways. In 2010, he founded Gojek, which later grew to become Indonesia’s first startup valued over US$1 billion. Last year, he became the first tech entrepreneur to hold a ministerial role in the country.

When he was appointed as Minister of Education and Culture, Makarim found it a “moral obligation to accept the challenge”. Education is “the root of all opportunities and problems”, he believes. “This was the only job that I would have accepted in government”.

His political appointment brings fresh hope that tech and innovation can tackle Indonesia’s education challenges. GovInsider caught up with Makarim to find out what motivated him to join government, and how he’s using tech to transform Indonesia’s education system.

Encourage risk-taking

Makarim hopes to take a page from his startup roots and instill a culture of risk-taking into Indonesia’s education sector. “One of the most idiotic things people can say about the education space is that you have to be careful and not take risks.”

If anything, the education system needs to be the most risk-taking and innovative, he emphasises. Teachers and principals should constantly be innovating. “I believe that if more governments acted like entrepreneurs, this world would be in a far better place.”

“If more governments acted like entrepreneurs, this world would be in a far better place.”

Risk-taking has to begin at the top, Makarim says. He believes that leaders have to be willing to take hits on their team’s behalf.

He’s also leading the ministry to take an iterative approach to policymaking. Just as tech companies test new products in small batches before rolling them out, Indonesia will trial its school transformation project in stages.

It will first target 2,500 schools, before scaling it up to 10,000 the next year, and 50,000 schools by the end of Makarim’s term. Such an experimental way of rolling out policies will help “mitigate risk and resistance”, he says.

Not a career, but a calling

Makarim built Gojek in 2010 to create opportunities for Indonesians and show that motorcycle taxis, known locally as ojeks, can be highly productive with the support of technology. “I wasn’t just doing it because I love tech”, he says.

Taking on the role of Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture was a continuation of his “desire to prove that Indonesians are capable of a lot more”. “My frustration with how underrepresented we are globally, for such a huge country, fuelled my desire to do something dramatic in the education space.”

Makarim acknowledges that education reform can never be fully achieved in five years, the duration of his political appointment. But he hopes to use tech to “get the ball rolling in a way that will make it very hard to reverse”.

He does not see his current role as a career - but as a limited time to make meaningful change. Makarim plans to be “ruthlessly mission-oriented”, knowing that he is “here just to get stuff done.”

“If I saw this as a career and that I was going to be forever in government, I’d probably do things pretty differently,” he adds.

Tech to train teachers

Image by Indonesia Ministry of Education and Culture


With 3 million teachers, 60 million students, and 300,000 schools, Indonesia has the fourth largest education system in the world. “There is no way we are going to make this better without technology.”

Makarim believes the greatest returns will come from using tech to train teachers. His ministry has launched Guru Penggerak, loosely translated to ‘mover teachers’. This is a nine-month training programme for selected educators to teach in a personalised manner. They can then go on to train other teachers in their own community, he says.

His team has received good feedback for the programme. These are “early beginnings of a transformation”, he believes. “The fact that we've had to deal with a pandemic and still managed to make these system-wide changes is very encouraging.”

He also plans to scrap Indonesia’s high school and middle school national exams. That will be replaced with a national assessment system for schools, known as Asesmen Nasional. It will “be a snapshot of the quality of the school”, and not an evaluation of the child’s performance.

Students will randomly be selected to take three tests. His ministry will analyse the data on the cloud to help schools gauge their current performance and determine what can be done to improve. “This will be one of the biggest big data projects the government has undertaken so far,” he notes.

Bridging the digital divide

Covid-19 has forced schools globally to teach online, creating a digital divide. This is “particularly acute” in Indonesia because of the “high level of inequality” between the cities and rural areas, Makarim says.

His ministry is distributing laptops, projectors, and Wi-Fi routers to regions that need it most. Its Kampus Mengajar programme will also send 15,000 university students to remote elementary schools to be teaching assistants. That will help support teachers, Makarim says, and undergraduates will receive academic credits in return.

Flexibility in curriculums

“There's a lot of what we learn in the tech industry about being user-centric,” Makarim says. He hopes to apply this concept to Indonesia’s education system, and encourage flexibility in teaching.

The Merdeka Belajar policy gives teachers the freedom to select parts of the curriculum that suit the competence and interests of their students. His ministry is also creating tools and platforms for teachers to conduct assessments on their students. That will give them the visibility and data needed to determine how to teach more effectively, he adds.

The crucial role of partnerships

Partnerships with the private sector and international organisations are crucial in transforming Indonesia’s education system, says Makarim. “You're never going to achieve better educational outcomes if you're just working alone as a government.”

The education ministry launched a grant programme, Organisasi Penggerak, to invite non-profits in the education sector to submit proposals for teacher training programmes. This creates a “hyper-innovation” system in which effective proposals are scaled, and non-effective ones are culled.

It is also partnering local companies and foreign universities to create internship or attachment opportunities for students. “Instead of me trying to transform all universities in Indonesia to become more relevant to the industry, it's much faster for me to make the industry into a mini university.”

“Instead of me trying to transform all universities in Indonesia to become more relevant to the industry, it's much faster for me to make the industry into a mini university.”

Makarim shares that his three young daughters are a “huge motivation” for him to keep going every day. “It's their country, and I'm passing it on to them.”

Transforming Indonesia’s education system will be a key pillar in helping the nation achieve its potential. Makarim’s entrepreneurial roots and tech-enabled vision may just come in handy.