Understanding the Call for Indonesian Nationalism

By webadmin on 11:30 am Aug 22, 2012
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Kunardy Lie is now chief country officer for Deutsche Bank in Indonesia. (Photo Courtesy of Deutsche Bank)

Farish A. Noor – Straits Times

During his recent public lecture in Singapore on August 1, Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto highlighted the need for his country to remain nationalist in its outlook and to adopt a nationalist stand on issues of national interest, such as natural resources and food security.

The former Special Forces (Kopassus) commander and current businessman also spoke about the need for Indonesian leaders to take a pragmatic approach to the country’s issues and problems. He cautioned that whoever might take over leadership of the country will have a short window period of two decades “to get things right” and to ensure Indonesia will not flounder in the future.

Prabowo cited statistics that seemed alarming to some observers, noting that 60 percent of Indonesia’s monetary wealth was concentrated in Jakarta while 60 percent of the country’s population remained rural and dependent upon agriculture. He warned that in 12 years’ time Indonesia’s oil reserves would be used up, and in 34 years so would the country’s gas reserves.

While Indonesia’s presidential elections are still two years away, most of the presidential contenders have already begun their campaigns and Prabowo was the first to project himself beyond Indonesia’s borders.

Lest Indonesia-watchers become alarmed by Prabowo’s calls for nationalism, it has to be understood that Indonesian nationalism is, and has always been, complex. With the exception of the brief Confrontation with Malaysia between 1963 and 1965, Indonesia has largely avoided conflict with its regional neighbors.

Historians will note that far from being a belligerent state, Indonesia has had in fact to grapple with several instances of internal revolt that jeopardized the country’s nation-building process from the beginning. In the 1950s, the fledgling republic had to contain the centrifugal tendencies of numerous rebellions across Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

The Indonesian army, which was put together from elements of the former Dutch colonial army and Indonesian nationalist, Islamist and communist militias, underwent a long process of internal consolidation before it became one of the country’s more stable institutions that has been crucial to its nation-building.

Since the fall of president Suharto in 1998, however, the Indonesian state has been under considerable pressure from local power centers across the country that have demanded more autonomy and local power.

Compounding this trend has been the rise of local governors and bupatis (regency heads), and the proliferation of local ordinances and laws (Peraturan Daerah) introduced at the local level. Some of these have challenged the spirit of the republican Constitution of Indonesia.

In Tasikmalaya, West Java, for instance, the local authorities have introduced a law that makes it compulsory for all women — including non-Muslims and tourists — to cover their heads with scarves. – Recently, conservative Muslim scholars in Indonesia have even gone as far as stating that Muslim Indonesians must not salute the country’s flag or sing the national anthem, for these were seen as “un-Islamic” acts.

It is in the context of these mounting internal challenges against the unitary spirit of the Indonesian Constitution that one can understand why some leaders such as Prabowo are drawn to nationalism.

Being a former military commander himself, Prabowo is more than likely to be infused with the ethos of republicanism, and may regard sectarian demands from religious or ethnic groups as potentially damaging to the country. In the first half of the 2000s, Indonesia’s international image was tarnished somewhat by news reports of religious and ethnic conflict across the country. Indonesia surely cannot face another round of sectarian conflict today.

In the lead-up to the next elections, more talk of nationalism among the presidential hopefuls can be expected. Such utterances have to be understood in their context, with some understanding of the challenges that the country faces today and some recognition of the fact that a vast country like Indonesia will need some emotive and symbolic force to keep it together.

No country in the region, however, poses an existential threat to Indonesia, and vice versa.

But as long as Indonesia’s leaders do not find a means to contain the growing demands of the local elite and power centers across that vast country, Indonesia runs the risk of further centrifugal forces pulling it apart. In the face of these new ethnic and religious demands, nationalism — as long as it is inclusive and not bellicose — may well be the glue that keeps the country together.

Dr Farish A. Noor, who has been researching Indonesia for over 10 years, is a senior fellow with the Contemporary Islam Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times