IO – A Jewish man who is an Australian citizen once told me how at the age of 18 he went to serve for 3 years in the Israeli army. “It was so that if things ever turned bad for Jews again I could go to Israel and it would give me protection. That was the price I had to pay in advance.”
I merely said, “Oh…” We were communicating over the telephone so he could not see my reaction. I felt a great wave of sadness sweep over me as I heard his words and tears pricked my eyes. “Why are those words triggering such sadness in me?” I found myself asking.
“A nation should always protect its people,” I thought. “No nation should ever ask its people to pay a price in advance for its protection. A nation is a mother and a mother protects her children no matter what the cost. She would never ask a child to pay a price in advance for her protection.”
Perhaps it is logical in the context of Israel and its position in the Middle East to ask Jews to serve in its army as a price for future protection as it is constantly in a state of war or threat but to me it seemed somehow terribly wrong and it left me feeling inexplicably sad for him.
I think in Indonesia we do think of our country as a mother. We say words like ibu pertiwi (motherland) when referring to our land of birth or bundo kanduang (mother who bore me) which is how the Minangkabau of West Sumatra refer not only to a woman leader but to their whole tribe or ethnic group. In the Moluccas the largest island Seram, is referred to as Nusa Ina or the Mother Isle for in the old Moluccan adat traditions it is believed that Seram is the island from where we all originated. In our national anthem the Indonesia Raya we sing “…Di sanalah aku berdiri jadi pandu ibuku” which translates roughly as “And there I stand as my mother’s path finder (scout)”. That is our role as citizens, that we scout the path, the terrain ahead for our Mother, that our nation moves in the right direction. As an Indonesian woman I find the words strangely touching. There is no mention of fathers in our anthem. Indonesia is our motherland. The creator of the song likens our love for our country to our love for our mothers.
In the national heroes’ cemetery in Kalibata, South Jakarta the graves rest under the shade of white frangipani trees the traditional flowering trees for cemeteries. In the distance one can see a monument on which stands the sombre statue of a large black Garuda bird. It is the symbol of our nation and usually it is an expression of masculine pride and virility but not here. In Kalibata our Garuda could never be anything but a female expression of Garuda. Here its wings come together in front of it as though encircling a chick or a baby bird. It stands there as a stark memorial to a mother trying to encircle or embrace with her wings the dead, her sons and daughters who did not come home. There Garuda is grieving for those children it could not protect.
Perhaps this also harkens back to a distant time when we were once a Polynesian society more than anything else and when most of Indonesia was matrilineal, the remnants of which can still be found amongst the Minangkabau and in certain other isolated places in Indonesia where we can still find the remains of that tradition. The Eijkman Institute says that 74% percent of our DNA is Polynesian, after all. We were once animists and pantheists in a time when women could be goddesses and queens. Sometimes we still hear the echo of our old goddesses Poa Aci or Dewi Sri as she was later known for fertility and Nyai Loro Kidul of the sea. Later came Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity nearly all of which come from traditions where the male element is exalted. Nevertheless, the new never totally eradicates the old and in those old layers of beliefs and traditions the woman and the mother are held dear and somehow our love for country seems to be connected to those old bonds.
Every 17th of August on Independence Day all across the Indonesian Archipelago whole towns and villages are flooded in a sea of red and white as houses, huts and palaces raise our flag the Red and the White. For foreigners especially from Western countries Indonesian’s love for their country is often difficult to understand. It is not noticed or they are uncomfortable with it, dismissing it as a sort of out-moded form of patriotism; frequently even searching for evidence that such love of country does not really exist but is merely a myth of Indonesia’s central government which enforces the myth with troops. It is of course, not difficult to find such examples as in every country in the world there exist disgruntled citizens who would prefer a different government or who love their own province or region more than others and some who even claim to want independence.
A respected Oxford historian once told me – as evidence that Indonesians do not think of themselves as Indonesians – that when he asked a Javanese in Indonesia “Anda orang mana” or “where are you from?” the man replied, “Java” and not “Indonesia”. Well, if I asked a Yorkshireman in London, “where are you from?” He would most likely respond, “Yorkshire” and not “Britain” because as we are in Britain he would assume that I know he is British. Now if you asked an Indonesian in London where he is from he is unlikely to answer, “Java”. He most likely would answer “Indonesia”. It’s a matter of context related to the place from where you ask the question.
For some reason I have met at least two Swiss men who told me that there is no such thing as Indonesian culture. I have often wondered since then if that is because there is no such thing as Swiss culture. Perhaps what exists is not a Swiss culture but rather a Swiss German culture, a Swiss French culture, a Swiss Italian culture and so on. If that is the case, then it would make sense if Swiss people think that Indonesia is the same. They would be mistaken however, because there does exist an Indonesian culture which includes and yet is also different from say Balinese or Madurese culture and that Indonesian culture was deliberately engineered by us to help unite the nation. And what is the proof of that?
What are the elements of a culture? A language? We have an Indonesian language (unlike the Swiss who do not have a Swiss language), literature? We have Indonesian literature that is not for example Javanese literature or Minangkabau literature. Take for example books like Armijn Pane’s Belenggu or in more modern times the books of Eka Kurniawan. Music? Our Keroncong music or songs such as Rayuan Pulau Kelapa or modern Indonesian pop music are Indonesian. Dance? We have many modern dances created out of various traditional dances into an Indonesian collage. Cinema? Indonesia has a fast growing tradition of Indonesian rather than regional films. In short anyone who really understands Indonesia would be hard put to claim that there is no such thing as an Indonesian culture.
It is not however, my purpose here only to speak about love of country in general but also to speak about my own personal love of my country. A final factor to be considered in Indonesians love for their country is that Indonesia is a relatively young country. At seventy-five years of age the struggle for independence and the sacrifices made for independence are still fresh in Indonesian minds. Even if most of the people who struggled for independence have now already died the people who heard their experiences first hand are still alive. So, the wound if not exactly raw is still sensitive and that of course, deepens not only Indonesians’ love of Indonesia but also our defensiveness about our nation.
We know that we are not a developed nation. We know full well all the mistakes, ignorance, wilfulness and even cruelty that can take place in our country and perhaps our defensiveness and protectiveness is like defending a child with a broken arm or a mother who is blind.
Recently, someone made a very belittling comment about both myself and the efforts of the Indonesian government in containing the pandemic. As I heard the comment a rage spread through me and I had to leave in order not to respond with equal rudeness. The whole night I wrestled with that anger and I have since been trying to understand where it was coming from.
Perhaps, as I have said it is that I am still too close to the struggle to create Indonesia to unite Indonesia and to gain freedom for its people. In my case my father Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana gave the best of his heart and mind for the creation of an Indonesian language and culture to help unite the nation. He was later a member of parliament but when he saw how Sukarno allowed the economy to collapse (by the time Suharto took over inflation was over 600 percent and there was starvation in one of the most fertile countries in the world) and how Sukarno destroyed democracy by abolishing parliament, shutting down newspapers and electing himself president for life, it broke his heart and appalled him. My father rebelled by supporting the PRRI/PERMESTA rebellion in Sumatra and Sulawesi. The rebellion failed and there followed over 10 years of exile for my family. It was a hard period, never knowing how long we could remain in a country and where my father could find work. He was branded a traitor and all his land, houses and printing house were confiscated. His books were banned and burnt in public. When we finally returned out of exile, for years I would have a recurring nightmare of dragging my baby brother through the rice fields chased by the Communists.
It was not only my family but our closest friends and relatives. Indonesia’s first prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir was my father’s cousin and leader of the PSI (Indonesian Socialist Party). Sjahrir spent his life struggling for a free Indonesia but he died a prisoner of free Indonesia. His death devastated many PSI members . Des Alwi, the Orang Kaya of Banda and my father were close to him and they could talk about any pejuang (freedom fighter) except Sjahrir. They never spoke about Sjahrir. It was too painful.
Another close family friend was the journalist, Mochtar Lubis who founded and ran Indonesia Raya, one of Indonesia’s best newspapers. He loved Indonesia and tried to uphold democracy for which he was imprisoned for 10 years by Sukarno and had his newspaper shut down first by Sukarno and then by Suharto. It destroyed a great part of his life. I once asked him if a person’s government does something that they think is wrong what must they do so as not to have a communal responsibility for what their government is doing? Is it enough to protest or does one need to put one’s property, freedom and life on the line? He told me, “I cannot answer for anyone else. Each person must judge that by themselves – but for me it meant having to go to prison and giving up my newspaper.”
Another close friend Aristides Katoppo also had his newspaper Sinar Harapan shut down during the Suharto government and another PSI member, Rosihan Anwar like Mochtar Lubis had his newspaper Pedoman shut down first by Sukarno and then by Suharto. All of them struggled for democracy and made sacrifices from which they never fully recovered.
These are the figures who evolved around my life. They sacrificed their wealth, their dreams, their life’s work, their freedom and even at times their lives but I never heard any ever regret their sacrifices – because they loved Indonesia. And so, no sacrifice was ever too big. Perhaps this is why I go every year to Kalibata Heroes’ Cemetery on the 17th of August and lay flowers on the graves especially the graves of the unknown soldiers for no one will ever visit those and yet they gave the very best that they had: their lives. There is nothing more valuable that a person can give for what they love. And perhaps this is why one belittling sentence could produce such a rage in me…
I know the government could be doing so much more to contain the pandemic situation. I know that people are dying and suffering. Some have not had enough to eat. I know how imperfect we are. I know. I know. I know that so much more needs to be done.
But I also know how hard so many people have tried to do their best for Indonesia and what terrible sacrifices they have made out of love for their country… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)