So, you think Indonesia is boring?
This is one of those petty blogposts of mine, in which I write them as responses to specific individuals. Spite is one of my life fuels.
There are many Indonesians who believe our country has nothing exciting to offer. This combination of ignorance and self-deprecation is unfortunately common. But recently, I encountered one person who stood out like an infected, pus-ridden toe.
They said Indonesia is nothing but a carbon copy of China and Arabia, hence why the world is more interested in learning about Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.
While the amount is not infinite, there are still too many layers of idiocy to put with.
First thing first, being influenced is not the same as copying! If Indonesia is a carbon copy of China and Arabia, then Japan is a carbon copy of China and USA a carbon copy of England. Hell, why don’t we start calling every country on earth a carbon copy of each other? Why is Indonesia singled out here?
Second, we are influenced not just by China and Arabia, but also South Asia, Portugal and the Netherlands. Combined them with the cultures of our bountiful ethnic groups, we are culturally richer than that imbecile thinks it is.
Lastly, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have many similarities to Indonesia. All of them are Southeast Asian countries with Indian and Chinese influences and strong Hindu and Buddhist history. With Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia in particular, they also have Arabian and European influences, Austronesian roots and dominance of Abrahamic religions.
I don’t know how any informed minds can seriously believe the other three countries are more unique. Despite having heard so many dismissive comments about Indonesia, this one ticks me off the most.
I am sure many foreigners have said similar things. But, from my experiences, this dismissiveness is mostly expressed by Indonesians themselves.
Oh, and I am not done yet. I am going to list many facts about Indonesia to prove that it is an interesting country to learn about.
Buckle up, bitches!
It is the fourth biggest country, the biggest Muslim-majority country and the biggest archipelago country on earth.
It is sandwiched between two oceans and two continents; despite being considered a part of Asia, it is more accurate to describe as a transcontinental country. It forms a large chunk of the pacific ring of fire.
Indonesia has over a thousand ethnic groups, many with their subgroups; the biggest and second biggest form about 40% and 18% of the country’s population, respectively. The majority are of Austronesian roots, with minorities of Chinese-Indonesians, Arab-Indonesians, Eurasian-Indonesians, Melanesians and Indian-Indonesians.
Even though Indonesia has hundreds of living languages, only one is official: Indonesian. It is a standardised Malay dialect (many Indonesians refuse to call it Malay) and has partial intelligibility to standardised Malay dialects in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
It is an Austronesian language with Sanskrit, Arabic, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese (don’t know which dialects), regional languages and, of course, English loanwords. But, despite being the national language, it has no native speakers; people speak either a vernacular Malay dialect or an entirely distinct regional language, with Javanese as the biggest in the country. Both Malay and Javanese are in the top 30 list of most spoken languages on earth.
Interestingly, unlike many former colonies of western countries, the colonial language was never dominant here, not even during the Dutch colonial rule.
Well, Malay was already the lingua franca in many parts of Southeast Asian prior European colonisation; the Dutch might find it unnecessary to introduce Dutch as one. I also heard they refused to teach the language because they feared most indigenous Indonesians would have access to better education. Who knows?
I also don’t know why the elite Indonesians -who definitely spoke it- refused to pass the language down. But, knowing the nationalistic mood of the country’s earlier days, this might rub people the wrong way. Not to mention that Soekarno -our first president- expelled every white and Eurasian Dutch person. Again, who knows?
Apart from (Sunni) Islam, the state also officially recognises Protestantism (confusingly labeled as Christianity), Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and, recently, Confucianism. If your religion is none of the above, you still have to choose one for official documentations.
Oh, and official recognition is different from being state religions. The former means the authorities recognise your beliefs as religions of their own rights. The latter is about state endorsement.
Even though the ministry of religious affairs has always been dominated by Muslims, the state also funds Christian, Hindu and Buddhist activities. Public schools have religious studies lessons for non-Muslim students and there are state-funded Christian, Hindu and Buddhist universities.
Despite being a Muslim-majority country with actual practicing Muslims AKA not cultural Muslims, our national symbols are of Hindu-Buddhist origins. Garuda — the mythological bird — is seen as a visual representation of the country. Our national motto, the mottos of many national institutions and the name of our state ideology are in Sanskrit. Not to mention the Indonesians who still use Sanskrit-sounding names. Just because most of us are no longer Hindus and Buddhists, that does not mean we should forget our Hindu-Buddhist past.
Nowadays, the biggest Hindu denomination is the Balinese one; the other existing ones are numerically minuscule. The biggest Buddhist denomination is the Chinese one; the existing “locally-grown” ones are also tiny.
The Javanese people — the biggest ethnic group — are unsurprisingly predominantly-Muslim. But, interestingly, many Javanese embrace both Islam and Kejawen, a syncretic religion with strong animist elements.
Remember the aforementioned ethnic diversity? It comes with the package that we also boast culinary diversity. Our regional cuisines are so distinct from each other, they taste as if they are from different countries; Javanese cuisine is very sweet, Sundanese dishes taste earthy while Minang ones are drenched in spicy coconut gravy. Some cuisines are mostly indigenous while others have heavier foreign influences. Culinary wise, we can cater to a wide range of taste buds.
In spite of the distinctiveness, they also share traits. There are many variants of nasi goreng (fried rice), soto (a type of soup), kerupuk (fried crackers) and sambal (chili sauce). While some variants are available all over, others are exclusively found in certain regions.
Indonesia has 34 provinces, five are autonomous. One is Aceh, literally the only Sharia province. One is Jogjakarta, the only absolute monarchy province. Two of them are Papuan provinces. One of them is, of course, our national capital.
We also have five provinces with religion other than Islam as the majority or narrow majority. One is Hindu-majority Bali and the rest Christian-majority, three are Protestant and one is Roman catholic.
And just another reminder that we are a big ass country! We are a giant with many experiences to tell!
Do I think Indonesia is the most unique country on earth? No, I don’t. But, I still think the country is far more intriguing than many people think it is.
Here’s a question for you: what do countries like South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, India, Thailand, USA, the UK, France and Singapore — which are culturally distinct from one another — have in common but Indonesia does not?
Seriously, how often do you see Indonesian tourism advertisement? How often do you encounter Indonesian restaurants in countries with small Indonesian communities? How often do you encounter Indonesian culture festivals overseas? How often do you encounter organisations that promote Indonesian cultures overseas? How often do you encounter enticing depictions of Indonesia in foreign media?
I am certain the answer is either “barely” or “not at all”; when you do encounter aggressive tourism campaign, it was only certain years. I am also certain if you ask the same things about the other countries, you would be more likely to get answers other than “barely” or “not at all”.
Obviously, don’t take my words for it. Just do basic researches about those other countries’ heritage. You would find out that — when compared to the others — they are not as unique as you think they are.
Once you know, you would realise originality has nothing to do with a country’s popularity. If that is the case, diverse and highly populous countries like Indonesia should have ended up as cultural giants.
But, reality says otherwise. Instead, South Korea, Japan and Singapore — countries that relatively have way less cultural things to offer — easily kick us to the curb. The first two are known for their homogeneity; it is impressive such big populations can still be that homogenous.
And Singapore? Let’s face it: if it wasn’t for its small size, its diversity would feel way less impressive.
Oh, and I keep mentioning religion because we are barely included in global discourses about Islam, if at all.
Almost every time globally-influential western media talks about Islam, they almost always feature South Asian, West Asian, North African and western perspectives. Indonesia is rarely involved.
Obviously, we are just one country; we can only represent ourselves. But, it is short-sighted to exclude us from the conversations.
Not only we are fourth biggest country and the biggest Muslim-majority one, we are also the only one in the top 10 list which is neither South Asian, West Asian nor African; we are Southeast Asian. Not to mention the Indonesian diaspora is globally invisible.
We would have easily offered distinct perspectives about Islamic identity, interreligious lives and how religions interact with culture and politics. The global discourses about Islam would not be too dominated by South Asian, West Asian, North African and western perspectives.
If foreign media interview the right kind of Indonesians, we would have added even more nuances to the conversations.
Our exclusion from them is exasperating. If they are willing to ignore a country as gigantic as Indonesia, just imagine how they would treat the smaller and lesser-known ones.
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