A Local Counter-Discourse against National Education Problems: Postcolonial Reading of Andrea Hirata’s LASKAR PELANGI


Education in Indonesia has been problematic for such a long time. There are two big poles playing roles in the ups and downs of Indonesian education: public or government and private schools. Mostly, government schools do not experience problems faced by private schools such as the number of students registering at the schools as depicted in the novel. Further, the problems do not lie on the dichotomy of public-private schools, but on the discrepancy among the private schools themselves. In terms of domination and discrimination, incongruity among private schools is so apparent and immense.

Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warriors) -henceforth LP- is Andrea Hirata’s debut and memoir picturing the discrepancy among private schools and the sad irony of local education, in a naturally rich island: Belitung. Published in 2005, the novel has got much attention from many people through printed and electronic media, becoming a reference to education matters, inspiring some to revisit and discuss Indonesian present education problems. Set in a small and remote island Belitong, specifically a smaller area Gantong, in South Sumatera (now Bangka Belitung Province), the story recounts the struggle of ten high-spirited village students along with their devoted teacher and headmaster. The novel centers around Ikal (the narrator, also the author), Lintang (the genius) and Mahar (the artist). Typical local issues such as social yawning gaps between aborigine (the original Belitong inhabitants) and the new comers (PN Timah people or Government Tin Mining Company people) and education gap between marginal local Muhammadiyah school and dominating PN Timah school are strongly and satirically criticized, and to some extent deconstructed in the progress of the story. The author makes use of some local cultures and even mysticism to tease the domination of certain groups upon their own marginal fellows and the everlasting problems in local and national education.

This writing will simply explore two aspects: first, why this novel may be categorized as postcolonial writing and second, how this piece of writing may be considered as a counter discourse in the mainstream of Indonesian writings and education problems. As for me, this study is my personal revisit to my hometown Belitung as an original inhabitant and to Sanata Dharma with its Rafil as an alumnus.

Theoretical Framework

According to Barry (2009), postcolonial reading of certain literary works will need to involve at least four characteristics: first, a conscious understanding of representations of the non-European in literature as alien or decadent ‘Other’; second, an avoidance of writing in the colonizers’ language for it is everlastingly contaminated and to write using it means to accept with consent the colonial structure; third, an emphasis on doubled, hybrid or unstable identity; and last, the stress on cross-cultural interactions.

In connection with the above characteristics and the degree of dependence/independence, postcolonial writings fall into three categories: the adopt phase (an unquestioning acceptance of colonial model), the adapt phase (an adaptation or partial intervention) and the adept phase (a declaration of cultural independence from the colonial model) (pp. 189-190).

Aveling (1993) reviews that there are three important features of all postcolonial writing: the silencing and marginalizing of the postcolonial voice by the imperial centre, the abrogation of the imperial centre within the text, and the active appropriation of the language and culture of the centre. In this study, it is important to redefine who the colonizer is. Due to the object of this study, that is non-English fiction, and then I will refer to Aveling’s writing Non-English Postcolonial Fiction? The Malaysian Case (1993) to extend post colonialism to literary works written not in English, in this case in Indonesian, and to redefine that the colonizer in this context can be any group outside the white European, in this case fellow colonizer even coming from the same country. This, in my view, is possible because position in colonization can be ambiguous. Tiffin gives an example of this in Australian case: “Moreover, such a model can account for the ambiguous position of say, white Australians, who, though still colonized by Europe and European ideas, are themselves the continuing colonizers of the original inhabitants” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2004, p. 96). The same case happens to white American domination over the native Indian while being dominated by the British.

The next part of this study will be focused on the exploration of LP as a counter discourse. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (2007) have defined Counter Discourse as “theory and practice of symbolic resistance”. They stated that it is a term coined by Richard Terdiman referring to his examination on French literature focusing on “. . . the means of producing genuine change against the ‘capacity of established discourses to ignore or absorb would-be subversion . . . the confrontation between constituted reality and its subversion’ as ‘the very locus at which cultural and historical change occur. . . . This term has been adopted by post-colonial critics to describe the complex ways in which challenges to a dominant or established discourse (specifically those of the imperial centre) might be mounted from the periphery, always recognizing the powerful ‘absorptive capacity’ of imperial and neo-imperial discourses (50).” Counter discourse is then an exertion practiced by the marginal group to destabilize or subvert the overarching domination of the mainstream, dominating group. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, (2004) called this attempt a “subversive maneuver”: “These subversive maneuver . . . are what is characteristic of post-colonial texts, as the subversive is characteristic of post-colonial discourse in general. Post-colonial literatures/cultures are thus constituted in counter-discursive rather than homologous practices, and they offer ‘fields’ of counter-discursive strategies to the dominant discourse. The operation of post-colonial counter-discourse is dynamic, not static: it does not seek to subvert the dominant with a view to taking its place, but . . . to evolve textual strategies which continually ‘consume’ their ‘own biases’ . . . at the same time as they expose and erode those of the dominant discourse. . . (pp. 95-96).” It is clear that these counter-discursive strategies are in a way active and forceful, but they do not aim at overtaking the dominant power or inverting the position. As the name indicates, it is a strategy, developed through textual discourse as to depict clearly in a teasing way the weaknesses or biases of the colonizing, dominating power, in the hope of eroding, or at least showing the extension of dominant supremacy. Being deconstructive and subversive can be an effective strategy to question the domination over the marginal group for future transformations. Ashcroft (2001) has stressed the quality of being resistant and transformative as the characteristics of counter-discourse: “Yet theirs is a resistance which is explicitly transformative. For they do not simply respond to the canonical texts but attempt to re-write them in such a way that their overweening cultural assumptions become exposed and subverted. In this way they ‘establish an oppositional, disidentificatory voice within the sovereign domain of the discourse of colonialism’. . . Because of its function within the dominant discourse, canonical counter-discourse is a very clear demonstration of the link between resistance and transformation. For although the intertextuality of the canonical texts is crucial, it is no longer their centrality or ‘greatness’ which dominates, no longer their revelation of the ‘universal human condition’, but the newly revealed cultural horizons of their hybrid and transformative ‘counters’ (pp. 33-34).” Ashcroft emphasized the importance of resistance nature of the discourse to be transformative in effect. This resistance is expressed through the freshly, not necessarily universal views of the crossed-mixed quality of the existing cultural expressions. Therefore, this new and hybrid counter discourse can only voice the subversion if it is resistant in nature towards the hegemonic domination of the mainstream discursive power. Furthermore, Paryz (2006) quoted Tiffin that “decolonialization is process, not arrival; it invokes an ongoing dialectic between hegemonic centrist systems and peripheral subversion of them; between European or British discourses and their post-colonial dis/mantling” (p. 567). So, the counter discursive strategy is an on going process, not the end result. It is some kind of dialog consisting of resistance and subversion from the dominated, marginal group (normally bigger in number) towards the dominating, central power to tease its hegemonic domination.


Laskar Pelangi, through postcolonial perspective, is clearly not merely a story of how struggle or spirit is important to survive the life as a marginal group, but more than that it is about how the minority actually have the potential to fight back ideologically the domination of the mainstream. This is done of course through a different deconstructive view of the postcolonial problems.

Through the above discussion, it is obvious that postcolonial characteristics are found in this work. Elements of hibridity and inter-cultural interaction are found for instance in Ikal-Aling, Akiong-Mahar-Flo, Sawang-Malay-Chinese relationships. The relationships are viewed as positive, celebrating, and strengthening. While counter-discursive strategies developed by the author can be traced in the inverted positioning of marginal against the dominating group. The marginal has shockingly been represented as overpowering the dominating group. This is also done through the representation of deconstructive teacher images. Furthermore, the myth and science are teasingly used to criticize the education problems by having, again, shocking responses from mystical and mythical figures such as Tuk Bayan Tula, Bodenga, and Mahar. The other counters are seen in the different perspective on certain ethnic groups such as the Chinese, with their positive images. And finally, the use of language also takes a significant role by the use of minor local words to maintain the ideologically believed hope that the marginal the tiny island with all the marginalized positions may have an opportunity to fight against the superior mainstream and win.

As a whole, I believe that this piece of work is a tool for Hirata to make use of the locality and marginality to subvert the domination of the mainstream power as to invert the position in the hope for better understanding of each other.


Ashcroft, B. (2001). Post-colonial transformation. London: Routledge.

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2007). Post-colonial studies: The key concepts. New York: Routledge.

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2004). The post-colonial reader. New York: Routledge.

Aveling, H. (1993). Non-English postcolonial fiction? The Malaysian case. SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 34. Retrieved November 10, 2008, from http://kali.murdoch. edu.au/~cntinuum/litserv/SPAN/34/Aveling.html.

Barry, P. (2009). Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hirata, A. (2008). Laskar pelangi. Yogyakarta: Penerbitan Bentang.

Paryz, M. (2006). Beyond the traveler’s testimony: Emerson’s English Traits and the construction of postcolonial counter discourse. American Transcendental Quarterly, 20, 565-591.


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