Indonesia engineers a new cultural strategy as its base for all future development

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From left to right: Hilmar Farid, Director General of Culture and Muhadjir Effendy, Minister of Education and Culture. Second from right: Amich Alhumami, Director of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Culture at Bappenas. All three addressed the Cultural Congress. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

A peoples’ welfare is incomplete if it consists of economic prosper­ity alone. Economic prosperity must be accompanied by cultural well-being. The two are interactive.

IO – Indonesia is one of the few coun­tries in the world that deliberately engineered its own national language and its own national culture. It has been quite successful in doing so and this has given Indonesia a certain confidence in the power and capabil­ities of social engineering. The first cultural congress was held in Indo­nesia in 1918 but it was a congress for the Javanese culture, not the In­donesian culture. It was rather at an educational congress in 1932 that a young man stood up and asked the other delegates, “How can we plan an education system when we do not know what our culture is? What is Indonesian culture? What do we want it to be? Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want it to mean to be Indonesian?” There were many answers put forward that day and perhaps they would not be remembered today if that young man had not published them in his literary journal which then became a literary and cultural journal called Pudjangga Baru or The New Writers. By doing so he triggered Indonesia’s first cultural polemics.

The questions discussed at that ed­ucational congress can in fact never be permanently answered. Every gen­eration will have to answer them again and again. The purpose of the cultural polemics was of course to be able to create a cultural strategy to underly all other areas of government. Due to the dialogue nature of its origins Indonesia as a nation is fully aware of such cultural questions and has consciously tried to tackle the task of answering them. For a hundred years since the first cultural congress and nearly eighty-eight years since the Po­lemik Kebudayaan, there have been innumerable cultural congresses and conferences – sadly resulting in noth­ing concrete. No cultural strategy has ever been produced – until December 2018. It is a new milestone in the de­velopment of the country.

A new cultural strategy as the basis for the whole development program:
In 2018 the government held the longest cultural congress in the his­tory of Indonesia lasting from April 2018 until December 2018. Exact­ly one hundred years since the first cultural congress and eighty-eight years since the Polemik Kebudayaan, the government of Indonesia has pro­duced a cultural strategy that will be­come the basis for the government’s development program in all areas. The government’s new cultural strategy starts by declaring that the strategy is a document for the future as it plans the cultural direction of the nation for the next twenty years. It explains that the islands and peoples of the Indo­nesian Archipelago in their journey to becoming Indonesia were united by a desire to advance into the modern world. Through the Youth Pledge of 1928 a new people was born. The at­tempt to move forward and modernize all together the peoples of Nusantara was continued with the Polemik Ke­budayaan which was essentially an attempt to advance a national Indo­nesian culture i.e. an attempt to lay the foundations to think as a nation and to orient the life of that nation. Although this advance climaxed in the Proclamation of Independence it can rightly be said that Indonesia was created through an inter-cultural dialogue resulting in an agreement to advance the lives of the many peoples of the Archipelago through one inde­pendent nation.

Bappenas behind the creation of a cultural strategy:
Dr Amich Alhumami, Director of Higher Education, Science, Tech­nology and Culture at the Ministry of National Development Planning and one of the leading minds behind the creation of the new cultural strategy explained that the seeds of thought regarding the creation of a cultural strategy were already planted when Widjojo Nitisastro headed Bappenas or the Ministry of National Develop­ment Planning during the Soeharto era. It was also supported by Emil Salim a former vice chairman of Bappenas. Both men are amongst Indonesia’s most respected econom­ic policy-makers who were sent by Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, leading economist and father of presidential candidate Prabowo Djojohadikusu­mo, to Berkley for further studies. All three are credited as the architects of the modern Indonesian economy. Nevertheless, the government has only now been able to formulate a cultural strategy. In preparing this Alhumami added with a wry smile, “I read all the works on culture and globalization of Sutan Takdir Alisjah­bana including his sociological book on changing values in society. Many people do not realise that Bappenas does not just plan things such as bridges, dams, irrigation projects and roads but also plans various el­ements of human development.”

Most of the narrative for develop­ment programs have hinged on poli­cy perceptions that for the most part, are connected to economic matters. As a result, development has usually only been measured using economic indicators. Cultural matters are sel­dom touched upon and are usually not considered important in attain­ing development goals for they have been considered too abstract to be addressed in the pursuit of econom­ic development. Culture frequently consists of intangible factors which statistical analysis has difficulty in capturing. So, it has often been looked upon as a quasi-scientific narrative. “Now however, a new view has emerged among experts who see it as a central theme of development which should not only guide but also be used to measure the success of development,” commented Amich Alhumami, “The target of true devel­opment is to increase the quality of life of both people and society and that means increasing the value and dignity of people, as well as the pros­perity of a society. This is known as cultural well-being. Economic pros­perity will only be truly meaning­ful if it is accompanied by cultural well-being and conversely, cultural values significantly contribute to a country’s economic advance and human progress.”

The United Nations Development Program has produced numerous reports on this and countries such as Japan, Korea and China all have based their development programs on a cultural strategy. With few nat­ural resources South Korea in par­ticular has focused on developing its human resources. One of the main problems in Indonesia is that good programs are often frustrated by problems related to human resourc­es. The people who have to carry out the policies and programs frequent­ly lack the quality of education and experience in order to do so well and this in turn leads to incompetence and corruption. It is hoped that the new cultural strategy in tandem with the educational policy will help to solve this.

“At present one of the problems that we face with regard to education is a discrepancy in the number of children from economically privileged families compared with those from families who are less so that receive higher education. The same applies if we look at the number of students at universities from more distant provinces compared to those in Java, Sumatra etc. These are the sort of cultural economic issues we shall be addressing as well as trying to in­crease the quality of education in In­donesia as a whole,” said Alhumami.

In religious affairs a strong cultur­al policy could also act as a bulwark against a rising tide of religious intol­erance and radicalism threatening the nation’s basic principles as enshrined in the Pancasila and the constitution. If we look at one of the most extreme religious organizations in the world today namely ISIS, one of the first ac­tions that it takes upon conquering a new area is to destroy its cultural her­itage. When ISIS captured Palmyra it immediately destroyed and plundered ancient archaeological sites, behead­ed its chief archaeologist and hung his body from an ancient pillar in the centre of a square in Palmyra. ISIS has openly stated that it looks at lists of UNESCO World heritage sites in order to know what to destroy. UN­ESCO Director-General Irina Bokova branded the ISIS activities in this re­spect as a form of cultural cleansing and launched the Unite4Heritage campaign to protect heritage sites threatened by extremists. If we look to the past, in the 19th century the Pa­dri War in West Sumatra was between religious factions fighting against the representatives of the adat (ancient traditions and cultures) factions, with the colonial government interfering to their own advantage. Much of Indo­nesian traditional culture drives from the adat be it at the village level or through the nobility. Under the new cultural policy adat councils as well as the traditional aristocracy under whose auspices Indonesian culture flourishes will be receiving additional government support and funding – just as it is thought that some of the more extreme religious groups have received funding from the Middle East.

“The director of UNESCO said that whereas Indonesia may not currently be a military or economic super power, Indonesia is already a cultural super power,” remarked Hilmar Farid, Direc­tor General of Culture recently. With its many ethnicities, languages and cultures Indonesia has a diversity of cultural activities, events and products rarely rivalled elsewhere in the world.

In terms of the economy the new cultural policy will lead to more em­phasis being laid on the creative in­dustry and tourism. The government hopes these sectors which are both heavily dependent on culture could become Indonesia’s major income producers for unlike mining for ex­ample, they are viewed as renewable assets of which Indonesia has an abundance and which when correct­ly implemented do not result in envi­ronmental degradation.

As a cultural super power Indo­nesia wishes to stop being only an importer of culture but also to begin exporting Indonesian culture abroad. Besides tourism and the creative industry, in foreign affairs the gov­ernment intends to increase its soft diplomacy with more cultural centres set up at embassies abroad and by further utilizing the Indonesian dias­pora abroad.

Traditional dances such as the reog ponorogo (tiger and peacock) and the kuda lumping (cutout horses) are in fact trance dances. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

A great survey of all of Indone­sia’s cultural assets:
The first step in preparing the new cultural strategy was to conduct an enormous survey of Indonesia’s cul­tural assets. This was performed by the Ministry of Education and Cul­ture for a year namely the Directorate General of Culture and Hilmar Farid, the Director General of Culture, also headed the team to define the cultur­al strategy based on the results of the survey. The survey is an enormous inventorization of Indonesia’s cultur­al assets; from intangibles such as dances, music, weaving, literature, traditions, festivals, etc etc to tangi­bles such as paintings, textiles, cui­sine, sculpture, heritage buildings and sites, museums and so forth. It also includes cultural institutions and maestros of the arts as well as cultural experts. So far, the survey has been carried out in 300 out of 514 kabupatens or regencies and in 31 provinces out of 34 provinces. This was accompanied by a survey of recommendations from the grass roots level of culture which was re­corded by the regional government in what is known as “the main cultural thought in the regencies”. Regents and mayors were required to report difficulties in advancing culture, cultural mediums and facilities and recommendations for further cultural development.

A Dayak tribesman with hornbill and skulls of birds. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

“The new cultural strategy is ex­cellent. Via the cultural survey, the government is defining it’s strategy from the bottom up and what has been in the minds of the elite for years is now being connected to what has always been known and felt by the masses,” exclaimed H.S. Dillon, a former Commissioner of the National Commission on Human Rights, with extensive cultural knowledge. What H.S. Dillon is referring to is that such nation building events as the Youth Pledge of 1928, the cultural polemics and congresses – even to a certain extent the Proclamation of Indepen­dence – were defined by the most educated segment of the population: in other words the elite. Through the cultural survey however, the process is now in reverse with the government basing its strategy on the grassroots cultural consciousness and reality.

The traditional meets national with these Sumba dancers holding small red and white flags. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

Challenges facing the cultural strategy:
One problem that the government faces is that most of Indonesia’s cul­tural activities and products especial­ly in the arts originate from the adat and the adat community. However, much of the adat culture is not tied to the new religions such as Islam or Christianity but from local beliefs that have sprung up from Indonesian soil such as the Marapu belief in Sumba, the Malim belief amongst the Bataks or Kejawen in Java. At times in the past the mainstream religions have attempted to destroy cultural activi­ties or products. Recently, at a talk on Nias in Jakarta Nias students de­scribed how in the 1970s it appears some church officials attempted to destroy traditional cultural artefacts and not too long ago in Aceh there were attempts to prevent women from participating in traditional dances. Without protection from the govern­ment traditional communities are at risk in their local beliefs. One way in which the central government has tried to provide such beliefs with at least a legal standing is to categorize them as tradisi nilai budaya or tra­ditional cultural values rather than as religions which would otherwise result in negative pressure from some of the mainstream religions. Also, the practitioners of such beliefs have for some time now been allowed to leave the space for religion in their identity cards empty.

Another problem will be finding the funds for this new cultural policy. The economy is not currently doing well. In such times usually one of the first government institutions to have funding reduced is the Directorate General of Culture. One thing that is being considered is the creation of a dana pewalian or trust fund man­aged by a body similar to what in oth­er countries is known as the national trust. At present the government will provide the funding for such a trust fund. However, the government will in time consider private involvement as in other countries. The concept for such a public private enterprise is still being mulled over by the gov­ernment as there are many different concepts for this all over the world. For example, in Britain, the National Trust takes over heritage properties and both manages and funds them, in the United States the National Trust limits the amount of heritage properties that it owns and manag­es and instead focuses on advocacy in the form of suing the government and other parties contravening the heritage and environmental laws, and in educating the public. In India the National Trust does not manage and maintain heritage buildings but will not only restore but also prepare economic, educational and cultural plans not only for the property itself but also for the many people usual­ly occupying such buildings. With a similar legal system that does not recognize trusts and a national trust system that involves a lot of fund­ing from the private sector, the form of national trust system that might be best suited to Indonesia’s needs could be the French, Fondation du Patrimoine.

The government hopes to make a long term investment in culture which among its many projected benefits is also expected to increase economic prosperity. At the moment however, with a weak economy and funding for culture needing to be in­creased in order to make that long term investment, it remains to be seen how the government will be able to implement and manage its new cultural strategy. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)