Indonesian Independence Day: Are we really free?
On the 17th of August, the date Indonesians celebrate as Independence Day, we all take a moment to stop and reflect on what makes us what we are today. It marks a celebration of our freedom from oppression and colonialism from Western nations. It marks our efforts to fight for what we believe in, a higher purpose in a state affairs.
It is when we close our eyes and remember the blood that was spilled, souls that were crushed, and lives that were sacrificed for a day when we can say we are independent. For a day when we have a sovereign say in our national affairs. When we are self-governing. When we are conscious as well-rounded human beings, a society and a nation. When we have made a conscious collective decision that we will stick together as a nation.
Living under local oppressors
Unfortunately, the reality is far from such a romanticized image of independence. We, the majority of Indonesians, are still living under "un-independent" circumstances. Though the foreign colonialists have gone, local oppressors have taken over. They shout in the name of nationalism that we must own and manage our natural resources, but for whose interests really? Numerous incidents have indicated that local politicians connive with local businesses to exploit our natural resources, leaving the people at peril.
In Indonesia, a country whose governance is heavily influenced by Javanese culture, deference to seniority and misplaced total obedience to the elderly – masquerading as "respect" – is the norm. Admittedly, this is slowly changing thanks to democratization and the infusion of young people educated “abroad” into the existing governmental structure. Note that I use the term “abroad” very cautiously here. If one is to conduct a thorough survey of the background and competence – including the methodology to assess this competence – of government officials and civil servants, one can easily conclude that the government changes its skin but not its content.
Just look at the amount of Javanese names working in ministries, state-owned enterprises, and heck even the highest office in the country. There has never been a non-Javanese president in Indonesia. There is nothing inherently evil in the culture of obedience, until it meets the culture of corruption. When one speaks of "reform", be it legal, political, or institutional, the "marriage" between obedience and corruption creates a sticky path. In other words, obedience plus corruption leads to a cemented institutional practice in the highest orders of state affairs in Indonesia.
The implication of maintaining such a democratic structure is creating an "illusion of democracy" post-Suharto. In other words, we have relatively the same substance – same players, same politicians, same mentality and behavior – just a different label. I argue that this is even more dangerous than a Suharto-style dictatorship. The danger of an illusion is it makes it a lot harder to identify and map out the problems, let alone come up with solutions and implement them. It will further create a false sense of confidence on the part of the constituents. In philosophical jargon, it is in the unkown-unknown realm. In a clear dictatorship model, we at least know what we don’t know.
Given all these wishy-washy democratic reforms, Indonesia now faces a serious challenge amid the euphoria surrounding President-elect Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. Despite his Javanese background, he is not part of the elite, unlike his opponent Prabowo Subianto who was the son-in-law of former President Suharto. He is “your neighborhood guy”. He's the one who would go to smelly and dirty sewers to fix infrastructure problems in a practice he popularized as “blusukan”, instead of issuing 10 letters and convening 20 meetings with various infrastructure or sewage experts. He will literally act as if he is the blue-collar worker, going into a sewer and conducting an inspection personally.
In light of the "hope" and "change" political confetti pouring over Indonesia, we, as a nation, must be vigilant to ensure that foreign colonialists are not replaced by local political kingdoms. Infrastructure, energy and all other public utility companies must be subject to meritocracy. Capital, resources and opportunities have to be liberated to allow for a more liquid social mobility.
At the end of the day, one can be euphoric about Independence Day. Or one may simply be drawn into the tradition of lomba makan kerupuk (cracker-eating competition) or panjat pinang (pole-climbing contests). Or one may simply treat it as a holiday to get some rest or go on a vacation, a good “me” time.
But independence should not be used as a disguise for political rhetoric while the masses, living under the shell of illusion, are manipulated. Changes have to be real, impactful, and require self-sacrifice on the part of political elites.
Ultimately, independence reflects a self-governing society, free from oppression, free from fear, be it from foreign colonialists or local kingdoms of political elites. Independence should be a mental reminder that we are truly a nation of self-determination, as a person and as a part of society. No one should be persecuted for their personal beliefs (be it atheism or buddhism); no one should fear political oppression just because they are poor; no one should fear whether their children will have a decent education or get decent health care when they are sick. No one should fear any longer.
Unfortunately, independence has so far degraded into a rhetoric, while the Indonesian elite stepped into the shoes of former colonialists. – Rappler.com
Harjo Winoto is an Indonesian legal scholar/philosopher, economist, and social critic. In terms of career, he is the director of Consilium, Public Policy Advocates. He specializes in law & economics, and devotes his thoughts on public issues such as inequality, youth development, and legal pedagogy. Follow him on Twitter at @HarjoWinoto.