Johannes Nugroho: Don't Blame Common Indonesians for Being 'Unpatriotic'

Comprehensive sexuality education is offered in few Indonesian schools. (Antara Photo/Adeng Bustomi)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 3:52 PM October 24, 2015
Category : Opinion, Columns

“Of late I’ve observed that our younger generations love the Motherland less and their national awareness is less than developed,” Indonesia's Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu when he formally announced his plan for a Defense of the Realm (Bela Negara) program this month. Bela Negara was initially touted to be a grand national scheme under which all able-bodied Indonesian citizens would be given a crash course in physical fitness, defense strategies and doctrines on citizenship and the nation-state. Yet there are signs that the initiative is probably ill-conceived and is in danger of becoming yet another superfluous budget-draining nationalistic palaver.

In the immediate aftermath of Ryamizard’s press statement, a myriad of questions on Bela Negara began to pour out on Indonesian social media: Is it similar to a national conscription scheme, will the one-month fulltime course mean people have to take leave of work, and who will pay their wages and so forth. The questions arose since the government yet again set a policy without having worked out all the logistics involved in its implementation.

In response to the deluge of concerns and well as objections — after all Indonesia has never had compulsory national service before — the Ministry’s Director General of Defense Potential Timbul Siahaan waded into the debate by saying that the scheme would only be voluntary. He also denied that it was akin to military conscription, reasoning the scheme would be an opportunity for patriotic Indonesians to take part in the defense of the realm, as mandated by the constitution.

However, the ministry’s parameters of the policy remain murky. Not only did the minister state that the constitution made it compulsory for every Indonesian to defend the Motherland, he also defended the policy by reasoning both Singapore and Israel have compulsory military service. He even added that Indonesians citizens opposing it should leave the country as that attitude would prove they are unpatriotic.

All things being equal, there is nothing wrong with a voluntary scheme aimed at training young people in physical well-being and self-defense techniques. Britain had a similar scheme known as the Duke of York’s Boys Camp throughout the two decades before World War II. Australia even had an earlier scheme called the Australian Freedom League, formed in 1912, though it later petered out due to its cost and strain on the army.

It’s the intended infusion of nationalist doctrine which puts Bela Negara on a slippery slope. Indonesia already experimented with such indoctrination classes known as Penataran P4 during the rule of president Suharto. All the country’s public officials and civil servants today would have attended P4 classes both at school and in their neighborhood. Had it succeeded in its lofty goals — to create perfectly civilized and law-abiding citizens under the guiding principles of Pancasila — Indonesia would have wiped out government corruption and most of its social vices long ago.

Far from turning our government officials into conscientious patriotic Mandarins, Penataran P4 only forced us to become a nation that too often pays lip service to hypocrites. Indonesia’s postcolonial nationalism collapses within, not without: it’s superseded by the more primordial loyalties to one’s family, ethnic group and religion. Government officials become corrupt because their loyalty to their own selves and their family members is greater than their oath to the state and the constitution.

Cases in which state officials put loyalty to their own religion above the state during the course of their duties are commonplace in Indonesia. Last year, a photo showing the convicted terrorist cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir with a number of men alleged to be local members of the Islamic State showed up on the Internet. How a man supposedly incarcerated in a maximum-security prison could hold a social gathering freely without the tacit acquiescence of prison guards sympathetic to his cause was nothing short of incredible.

More recent was the embarrassing photo of graft-convict Gayus Tambunan having a meal with friends, the release of which prompted a series of actions and explanations by officials eager to contain the scandal. But it is common knowledge that the level of comfort and privileges afforded to prisoners are in line with the amount of money they pay to those in charge.

Most importantly, Ryamizard’s charge of insufficient patriotism for Indonesia’s youth suggests that the minister holds ordinary Indonesians responsible for the current state of the nation. Under his logic, since the people are to be blamed, they must therefore be re-educated and rehabilitated through Bela Negara.

Has it occurred to the minister that public officials, both elected and appointed, have the moral obligation to do better than the average citizen in showing their “love for the nation”? After all, they continue to draw salaries and stipends from the public purse. To begin with, it would be patriotic if they could refrain themselves from corruption.

Above all, the minister forgets that if only our state officials were less venal, upheld the law of the land and administered justice fairly and equally, ordinary Indonesians would just love their country all the better. The best kind of patriotism is, without a doubt, one that buds and blooms out of volition rather than indoctrination.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at or on Twitter: 

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