When I was born, this country was in its childhood. By the time I was a teenager, people still talked about Indonesia as being a ‘young Republic’. Despite all the blood, sweat and tears that have flowed down the river and under the bridge, that meme from those impressionable years has stuck with me. Not so long ago I caught myself defending Indonesia and all its foibles in a debate with an expat using the excuse “it is still a young nation”.

words and photos by Rio Helmi

The founding fathers, Sukarno and Hatta, declared independence 72 years ago this week. We are for the most part a nationalistic people – the pomp and ceremony of the 17th of August commemorations bear witness to this. And yet, almost three quarters of a century later we still struggle with political and cultural identity, while simple things like implementing a comprehensive, effective waste disposal system or instilling a sense of responsibility into road users escape us. Rubbish has literally become a mounting problem anywhere within a hundred kilometers of human habitation; traffic snarls caused by total defiance of road rules (and lack of basic common sense) have reached epic proportions in all built up areas.

Above and below: 17 of August celebrations in Tegallalang

We can teach our school kids to sweep the schoolyard or to march in step and salute the flag. However we can’t get bikers to stay off sidewalks, drivers to stay in their lanes, or not to stop in the middle of intersections; nor can we stop people buying just about everything in multiple plastic bags and tossing them out anywhere they like. And the very same school kids are among the culprits. These are not examples of an ‘adult nation’, yet we are 72 years old. An age when some greater form of wisdom should have set in.

Indonesia’s own national modern culture is not yet one that is predominant or as pervasive as regional culture. What we have are multiple cultures, and multiple identities which, outside of the elite and some of the city-bound middle class, come first. Culture is not just about the arts. Think in the perspective of culture as that which comes from the people through creativity, feeling,  deep commitment to a way of life that expresses itself through not only the arts but in ethical conduct, beliefs, lifestyles, etc..  It’s hard to point to a single dominant Indonesian culture that takes precedence over local “adat” tradition across the archipelago. Even the middle class demographic of  young to middle age adults whose lives are all about connectivity and who have grown up in cities are vague when asked about a real Indonesian culture – theirs tends to a more a modified cosmopolitan or international culture.

That said however, we do have certain core values in common across the archipelago that stitch us together. In fact if we set aside all political and religious agendas and really took in what Pancasila (the fivefold ‘state ideology’ of Indonesia) represents, it is truly a powerful and enlightened stance worthy of a 21st Century democracy. And it could become the foundation for a flourishing modern culture.

Emblems of pancasila atop the Indonesian Red and White

Unfortunately, for decades Pancasila became a most useful foil for corrupt politicians, a cynical elite. And it worked because at heart most Indonesians gravitate naturally to many of the values  within the sub-principles contained in Pancasila. For example mutual respect between religions, respect for people’s right to worship in their own way; humanitarian values; pride in our nationhood; unity; consultative process that takes into account the needs of different groups and so forth. We were told that to think other than what that cynical elite told us to would threaten those values.

Hovering over it all, and sponsoring the whole distortion, is a sense of entitlement amongst those in power, often crossing the line deep into the territory of impunity. If we were to speak plainly we would say that it is simply driven by greed: a hunger for influence and money. The most outstanding example of this: more than half a century down the line we still haven’t officially admitted and clarified what really happened in 1965 and the following years, when hundreds of thousands lost their lives in rampant, shockingly brutal purges across the archipelago. Proportionately Bali was one of the worst cases. The many abuses of the Soeharto regime are well known, but his cronies and extended family still wield money and power in the background.

Before I stray too far, allow me to put forth the opinion that what all this did to the Indonesian people was to break their trust in ideals. Of course there are many who still hold these values dear, but trust in any kind of clean and proper governance by the political elite has been severely eroded. And there are many who have taken advantage of this disenchantment. Money has poured in from certain quarters of the Middle East, buying influence and funding religious fanaticism. Sidelined politicians jockey to get into the seat of power, playing with fire as they go. Political and ideological unions made in hell are forged and broken. Religion, money, military, police all come into the formula. It is difficult to find any evidence of shame or humility in any of these maneuverings.

The resulting cynicism which now pervades “the people” has created a tendency for people to “look out for their own”. Instead moving forward to embrace the more universal Pancasila values we have become more concerned for the profit and security of our own sub-groups along family, close community, ethnicity, and religious lines. Instead of thinking for the long-term benefit of all we have become pre-occupied with short term gain for our own. Thinking along the lines of long-term benefit for all has now been relegated to the “Lofty Idealism” box, the sandbox of dreamers.

But on the 17th of August we all come together for solemn ceremonies commemorating our nationhood. Even Ubud, once a laid back village, celebrates with so much pomp that this year it was decided to keep anybody who was not in uniform or an official part of the ceremony completely off the football field. Onlookers had to be satisfied with standing on the road behind barriers. Ironically, or perhaps symbolically, the flag raising was mostly hidden from the closest vantage point by a solid wall. At least in neighboring Tegallalang people could come down into the field and see the proceedings from close, and there was fun to be had besides – the drum band put on quite the show.

Above; In Ubud, a flag raising almost hidden by a wall. Below:things were a bit more fun in Tegallalang.


It would be wonderful if we could really weave the spirit of dedication to our unifying values, clearly laid out in the Pancasila and which we so solemnly pay homage to in these ceremonies, into the fabric of our daily lives. And if we could do so with an attitude of social responsibility, inclusion and tolerance. And prove that though we are not a young nation anymore, neither are we an immature one.

We could give way in traffic, we could show real concern for others, we could be more restrained in our consumerism, we could be more caring for the environment, we could dispose of our waste carefully. I say we ‘could’ because it is all very possible. There are traffic rules, our interdependence with those around us is very clear in this era of hyper-connectivity, information on the environment has never been so abundant as now and there are true and tried systems to reduce waste. These are just a few simple examples. We could also reject fanaticism the moment it rears its ugly head and arrest its spread. The constitution provides for this; there are laws that would support the executive branch doing so.

In the end it is perhaps a question of political will. But a curious thing has begun to happen. Sprinkled through the archipelago are communities who have simply taken things into their own hand to build and run positive programs that benefit themselves and those around them economically, ecologically, educationally. Low tech, sustainable solutions are the staple, supplemented by effective use of connectivity and information networks.

An agricultural laborer’s son works to get a tertiary education, comes back to his village and sets up a goat dairy association, in the process creating a What’sApp group that keeps tabs on demand, supply and prices. An ex-security guard, migrates to a new area, becomes a fisherman then pushes his adopted community to create an environmental conservation project planting salt water resistant casuarina trees along an eroded coastline: they save the mangrove behind – and inadvertently created a recreational park for the region. A Balinese community uses funds from their highly popular tourist site to run a waste collection system that properly sorts the garbage, run programs for the elderly, and operate a cooperative that provides other benefits to the community. And there are more and more such examples.

Perhaps Pancasila can only really be implemented from the ground up, not from the top down. Those self-empowered communities can build the self-confidence and sense of accomplishment that can counter the divisive forces that threaten the country. There is nothing more powerful than good values in action.

NB: this post has been edited since it was first published to clarify the point about modern Indonesian culture which in the original was badly worded. (Rio Helmi)