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Monday May 1st 2017

Welcome to Our Wonderland


Culture | Thursday, January 21st, 2016 | sundanesecorner.org

Hawé Setiawan

Glad to share my modest account on local cultures with our Korean friends of Chonbuk National University at Unpas' campus yesterday afternoon (Photograph: Lulu Mustikaning Apsari)

Glad to share my modest account on local cultures with our Korean friends of Chonbuk National University at Unpas’ campus yesterday afternoon (Photograph: Lulu Mustikaning Apsari)

It is hard to describe Indonesia in a simple glance, and I dare not to take such a difficult job. The land, cultures, and people are diverse, so that the late writer and journalist Mochtar Lubis once called this country as “land under the rainbow”. The country lies between the Asian and Australian continents and between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, sharing land borders with Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and Australia. The archipelago consists of approximately 13,669 islands, about 1,000 of which are inhabited by various kind people with different mother tongues and cultures. Extending across three official time zones, the area is 2,027,087 square kilometres, not included 3,166,163 square kilometres in territorial waters. It extends about 5,100 km from east to west and 1,888 km from north to south. So vast the territory, so diverse the population, so different the cultures — this is our wonderland.

An old friend of mine, a foreign scholar, once asked me about what should he do to observe the real Indonesia. I certainly didn’t encourage him to sit down in a moving cable car above Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park) —which is not mini at all for this theme park is set in a land of over 100 hectares (some 250 acres), built in 1970s and sparked protest from student activists of Suharto’s era. I rather suggested him to take a trip by an economy class bus from Jakarta’s bus station of Kampungrambutan to Bandung’s bus station of Leuwipanjang. As you are moving along the street, you can feel the real Indonesian atmosphere. There in the bus you find yourself among various people with various motives: street musicians, alms seekers, religious propagators, vendors, and — why not? — pickpockets. The bus is also a miniature of Indonesia in a way that can be considered more honest: not to please tourists but to represent the everyday life of our country. I could feel his excitement out of his steerage class odyssey. And I remembered of a satirical short story by an Indonesian author that tells about a street musician who would like to sing a song before a crowd of bus passenger. The passengers came from different ethnic environments, and every one of them asked the musician to sing a song in their mother tongues. Facing such a difficult job, the street musician finally found a best solution: sang the song of Indonesia Raya, which is our national anthem.

Indonesia is undoubtedly a miracle. As one of its citizens, I am often amazed by the unity of this country. How can in such an extent country, with a territory consisting of thousands of islands and the population that is so diverse, people have a sense of shared identity as Indonesian? How can these islands separated by vast oceans be called Indonesia? Where did this very name come from? Such amazement still arise even lately when, in July 9th, 2014, this country could carry out what The Economist called “the world’s largest single-day election”. It is presumably not a coincidence that Benedict Anderson coined the widely quoted term ‘imagined communities’ — in his study on the origin and spread of nationalism — out of his research in Indonesia.

The unifying ideal of the country is reflected in the popular Old Javanese idiom “bhinneka tunggal ika” which is commonly translated as ‘unity in diversity’. It basically says that even though we are different, we unite ourselves as one nation. This expression is attached to the national symbol of the Republic of Indonesia, i.e. Garuda Pancasila, a mythical bird first depicted for the sake of national identity by a twentieth century Indonesian artist from Pontianak in the era of Sukarno, our first president. Since that time the visual image has been retouched many times toward its perfection. The bird’s feathers symbolize the birthdate of the nation, August 17th, 1945. On its chest hung the emblems of Pancasila or “five principles”, which are our national principles. These five principles consist of the belief in God, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy, and social justice.

Long were the days during the authoritarian rule of Suharto when the so-called “unity” was emphasized in such a way that the “diversity” tended to be hidden under the carpet. Expressions that showed the diversity of culture, ethnicity, religion, and so on tended to be avoided for the sake of maintaining the so-called “stability”. Following the fall of the autocrat in late 1990s, Reformation has witnessed fundamental changes in various aspects of the everyday life in the country: regional autonomy, multiparty system, free general election, and many others. One of the interesting points of the changes in post-Suharto Indonesia is the vast opportunity to preserve and develop local cultures although those who support local cultures have to find that their cultures have been deteriorated.

The new situation is reflected in current demography. As Douglas Phillips has noted in his juvenile book about Indonesia, the country he appropriately refers to as “a virtual United Nations itself”, Indonesia’s population census of 2000 is the first census since 1930 that include the diversity of ethnicity. According to the figure, some 234 million people live in the country consisting more than 500 different ethnic groups. Four largest ethnic groups are Javanese (41.70%), Sundanese (15.40%), Malay (3.45%), and Madurese (3.37%). The rest are Batak, Minangkabau, Betawi, Buginese, Bantenese, Banjarese, Balinese, Sasak, Makassarese, Cirebonese, Chinese, and others.

Sundanese, the second biggest ethnic group in the country after the Javanese, has long been promoting the importance of the preservation and development of their language and culture. In early twentieth century some modern educated Sundanese young men founded the well-known Paguyuban Pasundan, a modern organisation to promote education and social welfare of Indonesian society. The word pasundan literally means the “abode” or “living space” of the Sundanese. One of the main activities of this organisation is organizing schools throughout the Province of West Java and its surroundings from high schools to universities. Pasundan University (Unpas) is one of the higher education institutions run under this organisation. It is why at Unpas the subjects on Sundanese cultures are introduced to all of its students.

As far as culture is concerned, the richness of Indonesian cultures are derived from various sources: India, China, Arab, Europe, blended in local ways. In Historical Dictionary of Indonesia (2004) Robert Cribb and Audrey Kahin noted that “for over 2,000 years, … [the present time Indonesia] was a crossroads on the major trading route between China and India, but was not brought together into a single entity until the Dutch extended their rule throughout the Netherlands East Indies in the early part of the 20th century.”

The point is not which one is the genuine Indonesian but how local ways can mix these various cultural elements to be something distinct from where they originally come from. One of the fine instances of this is the outward appearance of traditional santri or Muslim cleric: Western suit is combined with Chinese collarless shirt without a collar, plus gloves, cap, and leather sandals. It is a strange composite of various elements of clothing, but in a good way, those who wear them can look appropriate.

Professor Won-Gyu Choi (left) of Chonbuk National University and I at Unpas' campus (Photograph: Lulu Mustikaning Apsari)

Professor Won-Gyu Choi (left) of Chonbuk National University and I at Unpas’ campus (Photograph: Lulu Mustikaning Apsari)

The same is true with the Bahasa Indonesia, which is our national language. This language has the same root with Malay, the national language of our closest neighbouring country, Malaysia. Since 1940s and 1950s, however, the bahasa has quite different developments from Malay. Just compare the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, our standard dictionary, to the Kamus Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Malaysia, and we can find many differences between them in addition to many similarities. Oddly to say that I have often felt the difficulties in understanding the words of my Malaysian friends when we communicate in our national languages, and I dare say that English is the best way to share emails with them. Our commitment to speak in Bahasa Indonesia as our national language, which has been politically expressed since 1920s, is also an interesting breakthrough. Although Indonesia has long been colonized by the Netherlands, Indonesian patriots didn’t choose Dutch as the main vehicle of communication. Once European colonialism over Indonesia was politically ended, Dutch is slowly disappearing from Indonesia. In this context, the case of Dutch in Indonesia is quite different from the case of English in India.

Just as what we can see from the outward appearance of traditional Muslim clerics, the bahasa also reflects various influences of other languages, e.g. Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and, of course, Dutch. Our vocabulary is like a crossroad of major trading routes of the world. Let me quote an interesting passage from the memoirs of a prominent Chilean poet who wrote his works in Spanish, the late Pablo Neruda who lived and worked in Indonesia in 1920s:

I got back to the hotel in better spirits and sat down on the verandah of my bungalow, with writing paper and my mongoose on my table… I needed ink. So I called a boy from the hotel and asked him in English for some ink… He didn’t show the slightest glimmer of understanding… When I said “ink” and moved my pen, dipping it into an imaginary inkwell, the seven or eight boys who had by now congregated to advise the first repeated my motion as one man, with pen they had drawn out of their pockets, exclaiming vigorously, “Ink, ink,” and nearly dying with laughter…

From the solitary table I took an inkwell that by sheer luck was there, and waving it in front of their astonished eyes, I screamed at them: “This! This!”

They all smiled and sang out together: “Tinta! Tinta!”

And that was how I learned that, in Malay (Sic.), ink is called by the same name, tinta, as in Spanish.

To put it short, cultures in Indonesia absorb influences from various other cultural environments, and yet all of those influences are processed in its own way, so that they form its own characteristics. Creativity and adaptability are undoubtedly of central value in this realm.

(This article was previously presented to welcome Korean students of Chonbuk National University who visited Pasundan University’s campus in Bandung on January 20th, 2016)




Anderson, Benedict 2006, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition, London-New York: Verso

Cribb, Robert & Kahin, Audrey 2004, Historical Dictionary of Indonesia, Second edition, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford: The Scarecrow Press

Eagleton, Terry 2000, The Idea of Culture, Blackwell

Neruda, Pablo 1977, Memoirs, translated by Hardie St. Martin, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Phillips, Douglas A. 2005, Indonesia, Philadelpia: Chelsea House Publishers

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