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National Identity and Development in the Plural Society of Indonesia

S. Budhisantoso

Most developing countries are generally engaged with national development activities with the aim to strengthen national unity and to improve the welfare of the population. In the field of politics national development efforts reflect in the build-up and the strengthening of ideology or other symbols which can accelerate their national unity by throwing away any mark of the old politics and replace them with new ideas.

Several problems usually begin to appear at a time when the nation concerned succeeds to chase away the old regime and starts to constitute a new one. The most outstanding problem they usually have to face is how to unite a nation which consists of a certain number of communities, formerly independent and with diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds. It is the diversity of a new born society which demands a symbol, acceptable for the whole population and really able to play the function as a basis for the development of the national identity.

Developing countries like Indonesia therefore are ever trying seriously to develop their cultural identity not merely as a specific mark to differ from other nations, but also to create a firm identity for all the citizens. In countries, which are coincidently socially very diverse like Indonesia the building up of a national unity has been often ignored. Lack of attention to the diverse character of the society might result into an asymmetry of development, which could hamper the realization of the unity of the nation (M.G. Smith 1960: 763-77).

This phenomenon is not difficult to understand as the community often has to make a choice of priorities in the implementation of the building of the new borne nation.

Generally a newly independent society tends to put the development of the political sector as the first priority to foster the national unity and at the same time to wipe out all leftovers of the ‘foreign’ power. In this context people tend to stress their attention to matters to improve the role of the society in political life and to develop public functions and services.

To interpret and channel political aspirations of the people several forms and organizations are developed and maintained in order to create an adequate political condition for the sake of national stability and security. Several laws and regulations for political parties are issued to grant equality of rights and to establish a suitable political condition for the realization of the national desire. Also administrative structures and mechanism are developed and performed by referring to several laws and regulations, which undergo improvement processes from time to time in line with the trend of the social development.

Meanwhile there are also countries which prefer to develop the economical sector as a means to strengthen the national unity of their developing societies. In this case national development are more directed to the development of national systems of currency, banking, trade, transportation and communication as infrastructures to achieve the national development’s objectives. The establishment of an integrated economic system often arouses social reactions, not because the society rejects the efforts to improve the national welfare, but they are caused by differences of preceptions and methods to adjust the existing social traditions with the regulations, which are indeed sometimes really strange and invite wider participation of the society. It is also worth considering the reactions of the society against the ever growing intensity of contacts between groups and tribes as motivated by the higher social mobility and information flow, due to the achievements of communication and transportation.

Although social tensions and frictions are usually of temporary character, preceding the readjustment process of the living structure of the community concerned, they should be taken into consideration and properly mended as to achieve the objectives in line with the goals of the national development. Lack of clearly determined objectives and adequate management in the development process of an economic system often arouses social jealousy and frictions, caused by the ever widening of the dividing line between the more fortunate and the less, and the success of the less able in taking the advantages of, and in adjusting themselves to, the new opportunities and challenges.

National Cultural Development

Many of the developing countries ignore the socio-cultural challenges in developing their countries. They take for granted that the culture will develop as their people try to adapt to the new condition. The national leaders think that their people will react to the new challenges in the same way as they do, regardless of the different socio-cultural background and experiences.

In a plural society like Indonesia, development of a national culture as a common frame of reference for the whole nation is inevitable. It is a fact that since the proclamation of the independence, the development of national culture as the many manifestations of the active disposition of the Indonesian to the new challenges has been proceeding very fast.

An American anthropologist has described the national cultural development in Indonesia as an integrative revolution due to its nature. It is an integrative revolution because it succeeds in breaking up the primordial ties based on the family, tribe, local original, belief and language which undergo a widening process of diffusion into a larger integrated group. It means that the success of the building of a nation of national integration of plural societies is actually a readjustment of local traditional primordial ties towards the forming of a new national identity (Deutsch 1961: 449). However, the need for a national cultural identity to unite the plural and previously independent societies is generally ignored by political leaders. The need of a national culture as a common frame of reference for the whole nation is generally defeated by political issues which stimulate a political action instead of cultural response.


Fortunately the Founding Fathers of the R.I. were fully aware of the need of a national culture as a uniting force in the plural society of Indonesia. The awareness is reflected, especially, in paragraph 32 of the National Constitution which orders: "The Government promotes National Culture." In its explanation paragraph, it is mentioned that the National Culture should be based on the "old and genuine" cultures as they are manifested in the paramount cultures of the ‘regions’.

It was not so difficult for the government to establish the cultural foundation of the national culture, because the paramount cultures of the regions have been discovered and formulated by the Founding Fathers of the Nation in the form of Pancasila or the Five Principles. And the Pancasila as a set of core-values has been accepted by Indonesia as the National Cultural Identity and it was formally confirmed in 1988.

However the acceptance of Pancasila as the national cultural identity is not the end of the national cultural promotion as it is ordered by the National Constitution. The cultural identity of Pancasila should be implemented and institutionalized in the daily life and socio-political and economic activities of the nation. It means that the social acceptance of the national cultural identity must be followed up with the inculcation of the core values of the national culture as the national frame of reference to facilitate an even intensive inter-ethnic and regional social interactions.

In its implementation the government has to face the internal as well as external forces which sometimes do not support the endeavour. The internal force which is less favourable in the promotion of the national culture is the plurality of the society with the heterogeneous cultural background. Although the plurality of the society and the heterogeneous cultures of Indonesia is formally considered great national assets, sometimes it caused problems in the promotion of national culture. In fact the ethnic as well as the regional community generally interpret and express the national cultural identity according to the ethnic and regional cultures. The multiple interpretations and expressions of the commonly accepted symbols may invite social tension even if they do not stimulate social conflicts. However the multi-interpretation and expression may be accepted as a great contribution in colouring and enriching national culture in the future. As a matter of fact, the selection of cultural elements which will be contributed to the development of national culture is in the hands of the people in general. The intensive involvement of the government may raise the suspicion of the people as it is reflected in the fading issues on Javanization and Islamization of national culture. What can be done and in fact it has been carried out by the government is providing public facilities and guidance to prevent the deviation growth from the nationally accepted principles of Bhineka Tunggal Ika in promoting the national culture.

It is worth to mention that the National Constitution recognizes three categories of Indonesian cultures. Apart from the ethnic cultures, some regions or provinces have their own local or ‘pasar’ culture, while the third category is the National Culture which has been developed since the independence. The three categories of culture each has their own function and social arenas. Therefore the Indonesian may interpret and make his strategic choices referring to three different cultures. The choice depends on the most beneficial to response with and the social arena they are involved in. On the other hand the government may also make its own interpretation and develop action to facilitate and direct the development of national culture. However the government interpretation and direction has recently invited a strong reaction from the public, especially from those who identify themselves as the Democratic Forum. The Forum believes that culture will develop freely, as it reflects the active responses of its bearers in the course of history. On the other hand the government group accuses the Forum as traitors and opposes to the Constitution which orders the government to promote national culture with definitive directions.

The heterogeneous cultural interpretation and action of the plural society of Indonesia are also reflected in their response to national development programmes. To improve the social welfare the government has emphasized the endeavour in the economic sector. Application of the modern technology with large scale capital investment and intensive organization in the process of mass production is inevitable. The industrialization trends has obviously stimulated the development of industrial culture which facilitates those who can afford to control the national resources. Consequently it raised public reaction, especially in deciding the development approach.

Heated polemic on the development approaches is reflected in mass-media. Those who can afford the cost of development argues that the development cake should be enlarged before it can be distributed evenly. While the starving commoners prefer to share the cake initially to enable them to participate in the development programmes.

Indeed most of the commoners have nothing to contribute to the national development except their labour. The economic poverty has strongly influenced their interpretation and action in the development programme. On the other hand, the rich has different ways in interpreting and taking part in the development programmes though they are sharing a common principle of the national identity of Pancasila, both the poor and the rich referring to one of the five principles of Pancasila, i.e., "Social justice for all the Indonesian citizens."

Diverse interpretations and actions based on Pancasila as the National Identity have touched almost every industrial sector, such as the capital raising, management of production and the nature of labour. The Pancasila working arrangement is always multi-interpretable. It depends on who, in what capacity, under what situation and why it happens. Generally the factory owner will never let any Trade Union carrying out their campaign in the factory. Those who join the Trade Union will be facing difficulties in getting promotion and salary improvement. Striking is considered a ‘tabu’ and it may cause the production failure and therefore the workers have to share the risk. On the other hand, the Trade Union has different interpretations in defending their right to strike and join any organization. In many disputes both sides firmly hold a common principle of Pancasila, i.e., "Just and civilized Humanity".

The heterogeneous interpretation and implementation of Pancasila as the National Culture Identity is also effective in people’s responses to the increasing intensity of international cultural encounters. Most people react to the ever-increasing foreign cultural influences and try to legitimize their actions by referring to the Pancasila. People react to the youth and woman’s way of dressing, using Pancasila principles as their reference. Likewise people are trying to hold the control of artistic life and preventing the government involvement by referring to Pancasila as their source of justification. Not to mention that Pancasila has been exploited to legitimize socio-political interpretation and action either conducted by the people or the government agencies.

In conclusion cultural identity is highly needed by every nation, especially for the nation with a plural society and heterogeneous cultural background. The cultural identity is functional not only as an integrative symbol but it may help the society ultimately to reach a common interpretation and action. It may also help the fighting parties to reach a compromise without losing face to each other.

However to promote a strong cultural identity in a nation with a plural society it needs a responsive freedom to facilitate the people to interpret and implement the values into daily life activities. The responsive freedom is also necessary to enable people to respond to the new challenges with appropriate actions in line with the respective social developments, advancement of modern science and technology and the changing environment. Such a responsive freedom will, accordingly, help the National Cultural Identity retain its function as a source of cultural wisdom for the respective nation.


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