“The sea is not only a barrier; to seafaring races it is a highway, or even a home.” This is how the colonial British scholar J.S. Furnivall described our home in 1939 — a civilization with substantial links to the outside world, yet one that because of relative seclusion had developed its own culture. For him, the sea had caused both unity and diversity, and was ultimately the most important reason for Indonesia’s spirit of tolerance for different cultures.
We hardly require Furnivall to tell us this — many of us have experienced it ourselves. One Chinese entrepreneur, whose family migrated here in the 19th century, said his father had benefited from Indonesia’s munificence — “the markets just [gave] us opportunities,” he said, as if Indonesia were a tree bearing low-hanging fruit. Similarly, many people from the Indian subcontinent who fled here after the 1947 partition spoke of the “peace and prosperity of Java.” I do not mean to play down the turbulent upheavals of this past century. But equally, neither should they detract from the fact that Indonesia has proved to be a sanctuary for many.
While we have always been relatively open, only recently have we become a “we.” The writer Koentjaraningrat says that before independence, his Javanese friends would never use sibling terms, like mas, dik,or mbak , on non-Javanese Indonesians, because “according to the Javanese mind at the time they were foreigners.” After World War II, he says, this changed because there was “consciousness of a greater Indonesian nationalism.” This consciousness came largely because figures like Sukarno evangelized incessantly on the theme of national unity, which struck a responsive chord in the popular imagination.
Yet even as we made a bid for unity, Indonesia’s innate instinct for plurality asserted itself: Sukarno would declare Indonesian, a language not used by the majority, as the national language. This was an act of political genius because it signaled that Indonesia would not be a Javanese empire — which was the great fear of non-Javanese — but a safe harbor for everybody.
Today it may seem obvious that Indonesia exists and has earned its right to; the truth is more complex. We had to work at unity, and in the early years it was tough. Who of the older generation has forgotten Kartosuwirjo, the guerrilla mystic who fought the Indonesian government for two decades, controlled one-third of West Java and launched raids of terror as far as Jakarta?
But cultural barriers to integration were also strong. As late as 1971, only 41 percent of Indonesians were literate in the national language. As late as 1998, many thought, not for the first time, that Indonesia would shatter to pieces like broken glass. Yet from 1945 onward, our habit of toleration and our gift of pluralism ensured that we would live together, bind the nation’s wounds and keep our country together. We did overcome.
How can this not prepare us well for the future? Our habit of embracing cultural pluralism with grace has primed us well for arriving waves of globalization, which will continue to reward openness to new ideas and peoples. For some countries this is a new thing, but for us it is instinct and habit born of half a millennium of practice.
On this Aug. 17, then, let us pay tribute to our house undivided, our doors that are more open to the world than shut, our spirit progressed from strength to strength, our weaknesses vanquished. This archipelagic way is special, and may its fortunes blaze bright for years to come.
John Riady, editor at large at BeritaSatu Media Holdings, is a lecturer at Universitas Pelita Harapan’s School of Law.