A Question of Belonging

As Indonesia approaches the 75th anniversary of its declaration of independence I find myself contemplating what Indonesia’s sovereignty means for me. I have been living in Germany for almost 20 years now and while I do feel home in Germany, I can not deny the spell Indonesia still has on me. It is a beautiful country, full of amazing people, culture and nature with a big dose of exciting chaos thrown in for good measure. Add in the fact that most of my family still resides there and you have the perfect recipe for a constant, personal flip-flopping that has been continuously going on for the last 10 years or so.

As the largest island country in the world, the fact that Indonesia actually managed to be a country is by itself a very admirable achievement. It is a country of incredible diversity, a country consisting of tens of thousands of islands, a country that is anything but homogeneous. The thick tropical jungles, the impassable rolling hills and proud mountains, the deep raging seas all but guaranteed the thriving of idiosyncratic cultures that were able to develop independently, with a majority of them advocating a reverence for and understanding co-existence with the wild, uncontrollable nature that surrounds them. Seen from a historical perspective, practically the one thing that managed to unite all of the current Indonesian territory under one big red and white flag was the fact that during the independence they were all under the Dutch colonial rule. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, indeed.

The founding fathers of Indonesia realized early on the fine line that has to be tread to balance the national identity with the strong regional pride of different ethnic groups. This resulted, among others, in a fascinating propagandist education system designed to foster pride in both the cultural diversity and state unity of Indonesia as encapsulated in the state motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). I still vividly remember the flag raising ceremonies every Monday, the compulsory subject Moral Education of Pancasila (Pancasila being the five principles that makes up the state philosophy of Indonesia) you need to pass to make the grade each year, and the rather one-sided history lessons glorifying the struggle for independence against the colonial powers while the geography lessons usually highlighting the riches of natural resources in Indonesian possession and maybe the name of some traditional costumes and houses.

Ironically, despite the pride it obviously has in its diversity, the same courtesy was not extended to certain minority groups or even some of the so-called indigenous people. The Chinese-Indonesians, of which I am part of, are practically anonymous in the general narrative of Indonesian history despite proof of a sizable Chinese diaspora residing in Indonesia for centuries. The role the Chinese community had in bringing about the Indonesian independence is similarly missing from the history books. Even more tragic is the plight of the Papuans, who are regularly discriminated against and labelled as primitive while the natural resources of their island is plundered without any of the profits going back to the local communities.

That said, the times are definitely changing. There are improvements, especially in regards to education and literacy rate which have resulted in younger generations asking some very difficult questions. The Internet, while somewhat under the state’s supervision, is generally free and provides platforms for critical thought (though it goes without saying that extreme points of view also enjoy the same freedom to disseminate and multiply.) Politicians are still doing and saying a lot of things that makes no sense at all and transparency is generally way down on the government’s priority list, but they do get called out on their mishaps and recent attempts to pass laws that could have been used to curtail freedom of speech have faced some strong opposition from the public. A fledgling healthcare system, while still far away from being perfect, is without a doubt a step in the right direction, especially considering the financial constraints the majority of Indonesian still face in their everyday lives.

Like many other countries at the moment, it does feel like Indonesia is standing at a crossroads. The current pandemic is certainly shaking up a lot of things and while the frustration has not reached boiling point yet, the largely inept response and inadequate communication by the government are unquestionably fanning the flames. Waiting in the wings are hopefully forward thinking young Indonesians with the ability and motivation to think beyond the confines of self-interest and preservation of the status quo.

As for myself? Living in Europe has given me a perspective that I would not have gotten had I stayed in Indonesia, if anything it has given me the understanding that people are basically the same wherever they come from. I just happen to be raised in a country whose diversity could also be understood as a microcosm of the world and at the moment, unity and solidarity are the two things both Indonesia and the world could do with. In the end, I doubt it even matters where I decide to set my roots. I’m Chinese, I’m Indonesian, I’m German and, above all, I’m a citizen of the world.

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Jan Thedja

Music hasn't managed to loosen its grip on Berlin-based selector Jan K since he listened to the likes of Mozart. and the Beatles on his Father’s stereo as a young child. Having gone on phases of listening to classical, rock, pop, punk, jazz, hip-hop and electronic music, he decided some years ago to share with people his own personal musical narrative. While his literary output has slowed down for the moment, he is increasingly sharing his music through mixes and performances, more recently with the Berlin collective l-kw. He is currently working a music project loosely based on his experience as a doctor. https://www.mixcloud.com/jan_k/