The role of language and culture in the formation of an Indonesian national identity

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(illustration & photo: IO/Prive.Doc)

IO – Sometimes foreigners who know very little about Indonesia’s history or culture think that there is no such thing as an Indonesian culture. In this however, they are mistaken. What are the elements of culture? Music, lit­erature, language, art? If so, then we can certainly say that there is an Indonesian literature as for example expressed in the novels of Eko Kur­niawan or Armijn Pane. The abstract paintings of Affandi or the romantic Orientalism of Raden Saleh are clear­ly not Javanese or Balinese paintings but Indonesian works of art. Keron­cong music which has its origins in the music of Portuguese sailors was cultivated in the Mardijker communi­ties left by them but later these sweet melodies filled with their air of gentle pathos especially in the 20th century, proved popular in Java where Java­nese composers then further devel­oped them producing such famous melodies as Selendang Sutera (The Silk Shawl) or Sepasang Mata Bola (A Pair of Eyes). They cannot be said to be Javanese music which is better expressed via the gamelan. Instead the Keroncong of today has become Indonesian music. The same can be said for modern Indonesian pop songs or the nationalist songs of the 40s like Halo, Halo Bandung or Rayuan Pulau Kelapa. As for dance, one need only look at the dance ensem­bles of Guruh Soekarnoputra which combine dances from all the regions of Indonesia with a bit of Broad­way thrown into the mix to realize that these are In­donesian dances – not merely Moluc­can or Sundanese dances. There exists therefore an Indone­sian culture and an Indonesian identity – whether foreigners are aware of it or not.

Identity especially national identity is to a large extant deter­mined by culture and language is culture – in the sense that the lan­guage a person speaks will usually determine the culture they follow. These three elements: language, culture and identity are very much in­ter-related and Indonesia is unique in that it is one of the few countries in the world that deliberately en­gineered its own national language and culture and in doing so helped create an In­donesian national identity.

To better understand this, it helps to know a little of Indonesia’s histo­ry and the struggle to create a new and free nation, for language policy in Indonesia has its roots in the rise of Indonesian nationalism. By 1900 Indonesia’s nationalist leaders al­ready knew that they wanted a new country and a free country but they were then faced with the question of what sort of a country they wanted to create, what would they fill their nationalism with? From Central Java voices arose especially from the Budi Utomo movement espousing Javanese culture as the culture of the Archipel­ago. Indonesia was to become a revival of Majapahit, the most famous of the ancient Javanese kingdoms. There were other voices however, foremost among them, that of Dr Cipto Ma­ngunkusumo, himself a Javanese and the first Indonesian to succeed in becoming a medical doctor, who said that yes, of course Javanese had to be included but that on its own it was not enough. He asserted that we do not want to create a feudal state with one group dominating the rest but a democracy that would embrace all the cultures, religions and peo­ples of the Archipelago. A discussion both verbal and written then ensued regarding what type of a country we wanted to create for Indonesia. The climax of this dialogue was the Youth Pledge of 1928 when the youth groups of various islands held a congress in Jakarta and pledged that we are one nation: the Indonesian nation, we are one people: the Indonesian people and that we choose Malay as our national language. In short: one nation, one people, one language.

For Indonesia with its 17,000 islands, over 600 languages and di­alects and nearly 300 ethnic and linguistic groups this was a mira­cle, especially choosing Malay as the national language, for in 1928 Malay was the mother tongue of less than 10 percent of the population, although it has been the linggua franca of the Archipelago for several centuries. What is miraculous is that in 1928 those who spoke Javanese as their first language made up over 40 percent of the population and yet they graciously agreed to accept Ma­lay as the Indonesian national lan­guage. In how many other countries have the majority group been so gen­erous about giving up their language as the national language? One rea­son for choosing Malay was because Indonesia’s founding fathers were intent on creating a democracy and Javanese with its very hierarchical system of high, middle and low Java­nese was felt to be too feudal. Malay in contrast, is a far more simple and egalitarian language; a language of democratic inclusiveness, much more suitable for creating a democracy. Af­ter independence Indonesian became the language of the government and the medium of instruction in schools. This did not mean however that local languages were forbidden. The regional or local languages of Indonesia are used at home. The result has been a stable complementary diversity where the use of Indonesian in a public role has grown rapidly and the use of vernac­ular languages in a private role has grown more slowly.

Now had you been a young Indo­nesia in 1928 and heard the Youth Pledge as it was declared, you would most likely have been moved to the bottom of your heart and declared, “Yes, yes, this is what I have felt deep within my heart – but did I not know the words to express it,” for this drive to unifying the Indonesian Archipel­ago was not a sudden occurrence but a movement that had slowly been gaining momentum for centuries.

There have been many factors creating webs that help to unify the peoples of the Archipelago which In­donesians refer to as “Nusantara”. I shall mention only several. One is the many myths of origin connecting the islands of the Archipelago. If you ask people of the Tukang Besi Islands in Sulawesi where their ancestors came from they will say from Ambon, in parts of Tanimbar they say that their ancestors came from Sumatra. In Bali they say that the first people to open the area around Mount Agung, the most sacred mountain of Bali and establish a village there were the Minangkabaus from West Sumatra. There are many such myths of ori­gin connecting the many islands of Indonesia.

Malay as a linggua franca, has again acted as a web drawing the is­lands together as has the spread of Islam. Later in more modern times the creation of a colonial army and a civil service drew people from islands all over the Archipelago and stationed them all over the Archipelago, as did the moving of contract labour from Java for work in the tobacco planta­tions of Sumatra for example. In the past Indonesians moved from one islands to another in small groups of perhaps 20 or 30 people in small boats, but with the advent of the steamships hundreds if not thousands of people moved from island to island where they intermingled, inter-mar­ried and learnt to live together in harmony. These centuries of unifying movement finally resulted in the cre­ation of a nation. The Youth Pledge of 1928 for the first time gave words and substance to what had previously only been felt as a subconscious yearning and pull.

The Youth Pledge of 1928 also moved my father, Sutan Takdir Al­isjahbana deeply and he immediate­ly created a small journal called the “Spirit of Youth”. At the time he was only a young man of 20 years but of the three pledges the one that interest­ed him the most was the third: one language; the Malay language as the national language. At the time this was just a theory or a dream for most peo­ple spoke their regional language and educated people spoke Dutch but my father thought, “We must be patient. One day the time will come..” At the time one could not study linguistics in Indonesia so he simply read all the books on linguistics that he could lay his hands on – and then the time did come: in 1942 the winds of war blew across the Archipelago bringing the Japanese occupation army. Japan in­vaded the Netherlands Indies and for­bade the use of Dutch but nearly no one could speak Japanese so in order to communicate they were forced to turn to the traditional linggua franca of the region: Malay.

At the time my father was working at the Language Office of the govern­ment publishing house. This Language Office was used by the Japanese occu­pying forces. He became not only the expert staff but also the driving force to modernize the Malay language to be­come Indonesian. Later, he headed the Language Office. Within three years he wrote the first Indonesian grammar from an Indonesian perspective and he formed and led the team to create the dictionary of new terminology as at the time Malay had the terminology of a 17th century language. One week they assembled doctors to ascertain which medical terms needed to be created, another week the engineers, the next week the lawyers and so on. When Indonesia declared independence in 1945 a national language was ready to be used to unite the nation and com­municate the 20th century to Indo­nesians. The Indonesian government later adopted it as the sole official lan­guage for the government as well as the medium of instruction in schools.

The extant of this work in lan­guage engineering can perhaps be better understood when contrasted to the language experience of Timor Leste after its independence in 2002. Portuguese was selected as the of­ficial language of Timor Leste and Tetun as its national language. In­donesian and English were regard­ed as working languages. Only a small minority of the population of Timor Leste spoke Portuguese and to change this would be costly and time consuming. Tetun however, lacks a modern vocabulary and standardized rules of spelling and usage. Modern­ization of Tetun had not been com­pleted in 2002.

At the time of Timor Leste’s inde­pendence I asked the then Minister of Education, how he intended to protect Tetun from being killed off by Portuguese. He expressed surprise and said that the Australians had told him that English was the killer language, not Portuguese.

“But any language can kill Tetum. It is what you do with Tetum that will protect it. Have you started a modernization program?” I asked him. He told me that they had but that they did not expect it to be finished for another 10 years.

This then is where Timor Leste’s experience differed significantly from that of Indonesia’s in 1945. Indonesia began with one nation, one people, one language. For Timor Leste it has been: one nation, one people, four lan­guages! It is not easy to have a nation­al discourse in four languages. And this in a micro-state with not even one percent of Indonesia’s population. As far as I know modernization of Tetun has not been completed till today.

Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s work in language engineering was accom­panied by his work in engineering a new Indonesian culture – in contrast to the many regional cultures of In­donesia such a Javanese, Ambonese, Batak, Sundanese, Balinese the As­mat culture etc. It was not that he wanted to do away with the local and regional cultures of Indonesia but that he believed that to survive as a nation we needed an umbrella culture that is to say: a national Indonesian culture. In the 1930s he triggered the Cultural Polemics of the 1930s where we asked ourselves, “Who are we? Where do we want to go? Who do we want to be? What does it mean to be Indonesia? What do we want it to mean?

After the Youth Pledge of 1928 the Dutch colonial government became anxious with regard to the nationalist movement and forbade the writing of further nationalist sentiments in the written media. It was at an education conference in the early 1930s that Al­isjahbana stood up and shocked the delegates many of whom were far older men with respected and long standing academic qualifications in their fields, by declaring that if we wanted to one day create a new and modern state we would need science and technolo­gy but that it is impossible to simple apply science and technology without a culture and value system that can support that science and technology. It was for this reason, he stressed that Indonesians needed at that point in time to look West at the Renaissance and the science, technology and eco­nomic drive that it had produced.

His statement immediately inspired a series of attacks from other members of the congress. There were those who strove to find a historic pre-figuring of an Indonesian nation in the ancient kingdoms of Sriwijaya and Majapahit and their ancient cultures. Others in­sisted that in the creation of an Indo­nesian culture it was important to look at the cultures of the mother countries for inspiration: India and China. Yet other members of the congress wished to look elsewhere for guidance.

What is of more significance than the many differing views is that Alis­jahbana published all the views and opinions in his literary journal Pujang­ga Baru or “The New Writer”. What be­gan as a new literary journal famous for introducing a new generation of writers in Indonesian literature in the 1930s he transformed into a lit­erary and cultural journal. (Later still it would become a literary, cultural and linguistic journal.) By doing so Alisjahbana triggered Indonesia’s Cultural Polemics of the 1930s”. He did so because more important than his views on the direction and orien­tation necessary for the creation of an Indonesian culture he believed in democracy and the need for dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Cultur ­al polemics were held again in the 1950s with such important figures as Sutan Sjahrir (Indonesia’s first prime minister and one of its main founding fathers) and Abdurrachman Wahid (leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama which is not only the largest Muslim organi­zation in Indonesia but also globally, and later he became the third presi­dent of Indonesia) participating. They were held once more in the 1960s. The unwritten conclusion to these polem­ics was the importance of democracy and continuing further from there the importance of creating a national cul­ture, an Indonesian culture of inclu­siveness that would embrace all the tribes, cultures and religions of the Indonesian Archipelago. This was em­bodied in the state motto ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or “Unity in Diversity”.

The importance of language, cul­ture and national identity came into much sharper focus following the fall of the Suharto government after nearly 30 years of rule. It was the year most of Indonesia’s most im­portant institutions appeared to have failed her. The government collapsed as did the economy. Our military had killed its own people which is a sign of failure and every president after Suharto brought in sheaves of bills for new laws: an indication that our laws had also failed us. At the time many predicted that Indonesia would collapse and split apart much as the former USSR. However, this did not in fact happen – for many reasons – but amongst the more important reasons was the fact that two of Indonesia’s in­stitutions did not fail her: her national language and the Indonesian culture that had been created during nearly fifty years of independence. These two institutions had helped to create an Indonesian identity and this was in part the glue that helped keep the nation together.

Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana was not only a writer and a linguist but also a sociologist. During his time as a fellow at Stanford University he wrote a book, entitled “Values as Integrating Forces in Personality, Society and Culture” which tried to explain how to engineer a culture by changing its value system. Later, as a futurologist he was a member of the Club of Rome but most of all he considered himself a philos­opher. After playing a keen role in the creation of an Indonesian national culture and thereby also influencing the creation of an Indonesian identity he turned towards the cre­ation of a world culture. In 1993, the year before he died Alisjahbana was elected the Honorary President in absentia (he was too weak to attend in person) for an interna­tional conference on “The Other in Discourse: the Rhetoric and Poli­tics of Exclusion” at Victoria University in Toronto for the Internation­al Philosophical Association. Takdir wrote the opening and concluding papers for the conference. In discuss­ing the creation of a world culture, he wrote:

“We did not ask to be born in our present race, in our present nation­al state and in our present religion. Viewed from this standpoint our present situation is an accident. I was born an Indonesian but I could have been born an Eskimo, in the Eskimo culture and way of life. In our time of rapid transportation and communication many people are moving around the world and stay­ing in other countries, among other social and cultural groups. Through marriage and so many other social and cultural contacts, through radio, television, books and magazines we have become a part of the other. In this context there are no others. All societies and cultures are but our own potentialities and possibilities. There is only our human race on a shrinking planet in danger of total annihilation through the tremendous progress of science and technology. To avoid this a new attitude of uni­versal solidarity has to emerge so that the rhetoric of exclusion disap­pears, to be replaced by the univer­sal communication of togetherness, in other words by a world culture of inclusiveness.”

It was Alisjahbana’s last paper be­fore he died and the creation of a cul­ture of inclusiveness is what any true democracy will aspire to for in it lies the essence of true democracy. It is also the reason why Indonesia should seek its primary partnership with In­dia rather than China or the Middle East which have not yet evolved to be­come democracies. India in contrast is the Mother of Democracy in Asia and creating an Asian as well as a world culture of inclusiveness that embrac­es diversity, tolerance and openness will be a natural outcome for both In­dia and Indonesia. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)