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"The Future of Indonesia"

June 7, 2001

Nurcholish Madjid
Rector, The University of Paramadina, Jakarta, Indonesia

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, my heartiest congratulation for the conference, and my sincerest appreciation for the great honor given to me to take part in this very timely discussion.

It is quite reasonable that people are concerned with the future of Indonesia. The economic crisis that befell the nation in 1997 has grown in a crisis with multi dimensional effects. One of the worse effects is the political which, in combination with several other factors, has driven President Abdurrahman Wahid to distressing situation he is encountering today.

Indonesia is still a nation in the process of becoming, and the future of the country, as long as the burning desire of the founding fathers is concerned, is democracy and economic justice with the universal welfare for its citizens. But to substantiate such a statement we need to look back to the history of the nation and see how the concept of Indonesian nationalism initiates and grows to the present state of being, and how republicanism with the goal of establishing welfare for all in a democratic political arrangement could proceed for the future of the nation.

To begin with, it seems that there is still a need of realization that "Indonesia" as nation is pretty much artificial. It came out as the result of creative and courageous imagination of a group of people imbued with the strong zeal to liberate the subjects of the Dutch East Indies from the yoke of colonialism. The strive against the colonialists in some areas of the region had been waged by local sultans, kings, and religious leaders ('ulama') all of which was a failure because it was conducted in sporadic ways and lacked the relevant modern appeal.

When in 1901 the Dutch government launched the so called "Ethical Policy" with the introduction of modern education, the unintended consequence was the emergence of a very thin layer of the indigenous elite with the newly attained ability to articulate their ideas in modern perspectives. They started to enunciate the germ of modern nationalism, which aroused the formation of regional youth movements such as "Young Java", "Young Sumatra", "Young Celebes" and "Young Ambon". The term "Indonesia" (meaning "Indian islands"), was then not known as a concept of nationhood, by reason of the fact that the term was initially coined by a German scientist Adolf Bastian in 1864 to designate an area in Austronesia in an anthropological sense, comparable to the tem "Indo-China" on one hand and "Mela-nesia", "Poly-nesia" and "Micro-nesia" on the other.

When the inception of modern understanding of nationalism gave impetus to the Muslims of the region for the establishment of SDI (Sarekat Dagang Islam - Muslim Traders' Association), the incipient modern nationalist movement ceased to be limited to a certain area of the region, and embraced then the whole universum of Dutch East Indies. Under the leadership of Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto, the traders' movement developed itself into a social and political movement, and the name of the association was changed and became simply SI (Sarekat Islam - Muslim Association), with a clearly pronounced aspiration for the independence of the colony. The term "Indonesia" was then borrowed to identify the movement, which then soon evolved into a concept of a new, modern outlook of nationalism and nationhood.

But just as "Indonesia" was a novelty for the colonial subjects, it was also a fragile concept of nationalism and nationhood, on account of the fact the Dutch East Indies was actually an amalgam of many "nations", like Acheh, Minangkabau, Banten, Sunda, Java, Madura, Bali, Bugis, Ambon, etc., each of which is indeed a nation on its own by the standard of modern Europe, having its own ethnical feature, cultural identity and linguistic distinction. "Indonesia" was then really a "united nations", not a single, unitary nation, which soon afterward evolved into a single nation with some sense of common identity based on the common historical experience of colonialism and the sharing of common language embracing most of the region, Bahasa Indonesia.

The Bahasa itself was adopted from the Malay language of Riaw dialect which in the early decades of the last century was the most advanced language of the region. The prototype of the Bahasa originated in the maritime kingdom of Shrivijaya about a millenium ago, which then became the lingua franca of most of the Austronesian region. Around 15th century the Achehnese sultanate promoted the lingua franca to the level of a literary language with the facility of Arabic script, following the examples of non Arabic speaking Muslim nations in using Arabic script for their respective languages such as Urdu, Pushto, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and so on.

The Achehnese pioneering cultural venture then found good soil to grow that the Bahasa and its cultural makeup spread to both sides of the Malaccan Strait and grew to reach its culmination in Riaw. Notwithstanding that the Bahasa developed by the Achehnese was at that time called Jawi and the Arabic script for it was called Jawi script (following the habit of the Holy Land community to call the people from Southeast Asia Jawi), the language is anthropologically a Malay language shared by the present day Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Pattani (a province in Thailand). It is interesting to note that in Indonesia, the Moluccan communities in general and the Ambonese in particular, unlike the Sundanese and the Javanese, for example, have been Malay speaking people from thc ancient times. All of those facts have facilitated the adoption of the Bahasa by the Indonesian nationalists to be the national and official language of the new nation. Now among the new nations, Indonesia is the most successful in developing and employing a national language, the reality that should partly explain why Indonesia is so far relatively strong in its cohesiveness as a single nation, far enough from being another Balkan, despite some current regional upheavals.

As has been suggested, the upheavals are part of the political offshoots of the economic crisis. The crisis has struck the weak nerve of Indonesian political system. At the absence of example in the indigenous history of the nation, Indonesia was modeled on American experiences. With some differences, both America and Indonesia are successful construction out of creative and courageous imagination, embracing a great multiplicity of cultural and communal groupings. Therefore, through such pioneering figures as Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta, Indonesian nationalists were then to apply American concepts of republicanism with the goal of the state to establish common welfare, the idea of pluralism (the phrase of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika as the exact replica of E Pluribus Unum), the governmental system of presidential-cabinet, a concept of state philosophy (Indonesian Panchasila in the Preamble of the Constitution, comparable to, though not the replica of, the American values in the Declaration of Independence), and the use of a bird of prey as the seal of the nation. But partly because of the dominance of the Javanese with their peculiar concept of state and statecraft, two aspects of American system were not adopted by Indonesian leaders, the ideas of federalism and direct election of president and vice president and the members of legislative body. Although there was an effort to create a mechanism of checks and balances in Indonesian legislative bodies (the DPR and the MPR, corresponding to the American House of Representatives/Senate and the Congress), but the outcome has not been effective. All of these deficiencies - if we may say so - could be seen as part of the source of Indonesian troubles these days.

The attempt to put into reality all of the initial concepts of Indonesian state and statehood began with the national independence in 1945, under the leadership of President Sukarno. The series of the experimental trial and error ended up with the political debacle of the 1965. President Suharto was then to take over the leadership of the country, and he succeeded to maintain the power for 32 years, using the elements of Javanism and militarism, the commonality of which being the sense of hierarchy and loyalty. President Suharto's endeavor almost naturally culminates with sorrowful end in 1998, as it is categorically against the principles of Indonesian nationalism set forth by the founding fathers. Intermittently President Suharto was replaced by President Bahruddin Jusuf Habibie, whose government was successful in consolidating the basic freedom for the people, especially the freedom of expression, assembly and association. President Habibie was also to be credited for the success of the truly free general election in 1999, resulting in the first ever democratic election of Indonesian President and Vice President, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri respectively.

From then on, Indonesia is truly experimenting with democracy. As is the case with any experimentation, such a learning process would naturally contain the course of making "trial and error". Therefore not every error is entirely avoidable, and the challenge now is how to contain an error in such a way as not to cancel the gains already obtained, and not to push back the nation to its previous undemocratic experiences. In this context, we should not mistake popular noise for national trouble. In some respect, the popular noise is the function of the strong desire to participate in the political and social processes. And such desire is, in its turn, the function of education or, more aptly, of being educated, because of the above suggested truth that the most important unintended consequences of being educated is the articulateness and vocabularity.

Already since mid 1980's, Indonesia has witnessed the ascendance of the role of the educated, foremost among them are the university graduates, with their proficiency in using modern political and social idioms, jargons, symbolisms, and phraseologies. In its sum total that enfolds hundreds of thousands of the educated, such articulation evolves and hardens itself to become a tremendous political energy with the established government becomes usually the target of its onslaught. The suppression of freedom for 32 years (some people even say 40 years because of President Sukarno's "guided democracy" prior to President Suharto's "New Order") has led the nation to the present unbridled social and political expressions. And simply because of the fact that Indonesia is not yet a sufficiently educated nation (far behind its neighbors), and due to the internal developmental gaps that some Indonesians did not even yet see the dawn of history, the increase of the educational efforts and the growth of the popular education, in both quality and quantity, will certainly be accompanied by the increase and growth of the desire for social and political participation. This means that we should expect that Indonesian social and political scene is going to be more and more noisy, except that the noise should be perceived in its best sense as committed expression of concern and sense of belonging to the nation, the state, and the country.

On the basis of such perspectives, we could count that Indonesia, in its process of becoming a fully mature nation, is going to continue with its experimentation with democracy and the ideals of republicanism. The outbreaks that have been enfolding the nation these days could indeed be of discouraging occurrences. But taking into consideration the ever strong growth of the sense of nationhood based on the commonality of historical experiences, the cultural mimesis, and the resolutely shared aspiration for democracy and economic development with social justice, it should not be too hasty to predict that Indonesia is going to be a strong modern nation state, with the robust sense of sovereignty and independence. But just as we do not have to reinvent the wheel, part of the new consciousness of Indonesian people is that they should take the benefit of having the advantage of learning from the established nations, repeating their successes and avoiding their failures.

If there is anything that Indonesia could positively contribute to the bright future of Asia and the world, it is Indonesia of the future, with its unfolding potentials to be a strong, secure, stable and confident democracy, with the sound growth of its national economy, leading to its constitutional goal, the establishment of social justice for all.

Thank you all for your attention.

Titles of speakers, names of companies, etc., were correct as of the time when the forum was held.