When the mantra of reformasi swept the archipelago in 1998, few could fathom the repercussions of deconstructing the New Order state beyond the toppling of Soeharto.
The age of predefined cultural and political hegemony gone by. Eleven years later the country is still grappling to fasten the fibers that create nationhood and a community based on the ideals of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).
The polemic of nation building is as loud today as in the 1930s, when the seeds of Indonesian nationhood were still being fertilized, as contentious as the definition of revolution in the 1950s.
If the cultural polemic of the past was dominated by the literati — Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Muhammad Yamin and Sanusi Pane — and the political elite — Sukarno and M. Hatta — the 21st century is a cacophony of the layman and statesman, whether in the public or the digital forums.
A nation facing changes in the way its people interact.
Collisions between evolving views of consciousness spurred by shifting political paradigms, globalization, technology and a new generation of Indonesians who know nothing but the culture of democracy.
From Facebook to Prita Mulyasari. Hot pants to batik.
Between the rise of the liberal anchored beyond the parameters of orthodoxy, and the protraction of conservative traditionalism buried in blood and soil.
Rather than coming to terms with the miscellany, the outbursts have been panics of indifference that sully the beauty of diversity.
The freedom of information and expressions of individuality that marked the birth of a democratic Indonesia were tested by those who find it difficult to come to terms with such openness.
The “Javanese Way” of not saying what one really means, and pretending not to want what one actually covets, is no longer the modus of interaction.
The decision by a local branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) to declare the social network Facebook haram (prohibited in Islam) was one example of how in 2009 the modernity of freedom of expression was bludgeoned by the old ways of the rigid past.
Like some authoritarian regimes, the only way some know how to deal with it is through censorship. In that same regard, the state is always hankering to control and limit information as much as possible.
Hence despite laws on freedom of information, a bill was sneaked into the House of Representatives that would widen the scope to which the government could brand information as a state secret.
Fortunately there was enough public awareness to see the bill suspended at the close of the 2004-2009 legislature. This effectively means the battle will continue next year.
The libel case involving Prita Mulyasari was another example of how the new culture of Indonesia’s modern democracy was tested in 2009. The mother of two was found guilty for writing an email to friends complaining about the services of a private hospital.
While Prita may have been guilty in her mode of expression according to the letter of the law, the outburst of public support and sympathy showed that injustice had occurred that affected a right that many now consider an inalienable part of the democratic culture.
The clash with modernity was further prevalent in Aceh, as overzealous councilors began to impose strict interpretations of sharia law that could see stoning to death for adulterers and women forbidden from wearing tight pants.
The events in the westernmost province are a further sign of the creeping conservatism that has flourished in reaction to the pendulum swing of liberal voices.
People fear the novel and unknown because it may undermine the safe bubble of established hegemonic traditions and loyalties. For many, new trends toward perceptions of authority, including views on sexuality and family, are challenges they would rather banish than face.
The same way that the freedom of religion in the Constitution does not translate into freedom of conscience.
How many remember the thousands of students of the Satria school in Jakarta who remain in exile and are refugees because their boarding school was forcibly shut down by residents uncomfortable at having, what they perceived as, a Christian mission in their midst.
As we have learned in 2009, laws and regulations in themselves are not enough to ensure tolerance because they don’t tell people how to respect one another.
And while we all agree on our love of material culture, from shopping malls to ownership of batik, the core values of culture to explain what makes up Indonesia are being shaped.
In other words, the Indonesia of tomorrow is being defined by the “cultural polemics” of today.
What many have forgotten, however, is that despite the veracity of debate regarding this issue in the past, what has been defined as Indonesian culture has always been the moderation of values where no one ideology, faith, ethnicity or even language has been predominant.
A secular tradition of all facets. It was a Sumatran, M. Yamin, who proposed the model of a unitary state akin to the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit. It was a Javanese, Ki Hajar Dewantara, who asserted that the national language of this country be Malay, not Javanese. Furthermore, it was Muslim thinkers who ensured that the new republic would not be an Islamic state.
The words of Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana in the 1930s may be a guide to the cultural polemics of the coming year: “If necessary we should take the sharpest knife and cut the weeds and parasite from the tree of ‘Indonesianest’ … Our cultural scouts must be free from the burdens of heritage.”
The writer is deputy chief editor of The Jakarta Post.