Johannes Nugroho: Indonesia's Less Than Genteel Problem

A cleaner at the National Monument (Monas) area in Central Jakarta, after the inauguration of President Joko Widodo last October. (Antara Photo/Vitalis Yogi Tuti)

By : Jakarta Globe | on 8:49 AM July 29, 2015
Category : Opinion, Columns

Photos of smiling Indonesians taking selfies in front of the wreck of the Hercules plane recently crashed in Medan elicited a chorus of dismay among netizens. Adjectives like crass, rude, insensitive and uneducated were flung at the selfie-takers. Indonesians usually like to attribute such ignorant  behavior to lack of education. But will such conclusion suffice?

It wasn’t long ago when a furor erupted in Australia over the images of the Denpasar Police chief Sr. Comr. Djoko Hari Utomo posing for the camera with the 'Bali Nine' duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran as they were about to be jetted away to their executions. Yet the instigator of the “macabre and undignified” photos ─ adjectives chosen by Prime Minister Tony Abbott ─  was far from being uneducated.

Recently, a video clip has also emerged of some Jakarta tourists in Bali caught in the act of throwing rubbish out of their car window. Filmed by a concerned Badung resident, Made Tommy Brahmaputra, the video was posted online in a bid to show how the average domestic tourist behaves in Bali. Once again, the middle-class Indonesian occupants of the car in question were in all likelihood reasonably educated.

So why do we keep hearing about Indonesians behaving in ways that err against common sense and decorum? To answer the question we may have to turn to the history of the British aristocracy. Though now increasingly seen by many Britons as a relic of the past, good manners did germinate in the world of “ladies and gentlemen.”

Around the time of the Age of Chivalry in the 12th century, the British and European nobilities started to embrace a code of conduct which spoke of honor and respectability. The strength of a gentleman’s agreement, after all, rested on the uncompromising honor of the genteel class.

Then, when the Industrial Revolution swept Britain in the 19th century, the aristocracy went into a decline with the emergence of the mercantile middle class, soon to surpass the old nobility in wealth and influence. Interestingly, members of the British middle class emulated the ideals and values of their aristocratic counterparts.

Nor was the enthusiasm for gentlemanly ideals restricted to Britain. Across the Atlantic, the increasingly wealthy citizens of the United States also saw them as the zenith of social accomplishment, even as far back as George Washington’s days. The teenage Washington, for example, familiarized himself with “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” a translated work on the French rules of the nobility.

Richard Brookhiser, author of Washington’s biography, wrote “all modern manners in the Western world were originally aristocratic. Courtesy meant behavior appropriate to a court; chivalry comes from chevalier ─ a knight.”

Within the Indonesian context, the adoption of the aristocratic ideals by the masses never really took place, largely due to colonialism. The indigenous aristocracies of the archipelago hadn’t properly developed any chivalrous code of conduct when the first of the European powers, the Portuguese, began their colonial venture in the early 16th century.

From then on, the histories of the local kingdoms and sultanates became greatly influenced by their European overlords. During Dutch rule, most local royal courts such as the Deli, Pontianak, Mataram sultanates assumed some European features.

However, when Indonesia’s young intellectuals started expressing their wish for independence from the Dutch in early 20th century, the local aristocracies had been too deeply intertwined with the colonial system that they, too, were seen as an extension of foreign claws of domination.

After the proclamation of independence in 1945, most of localized Indonesian royal courts didn’t fare well with the central government, except for the Yogyakarta Sultanate, which had declared its support for the republic almost immediately. The feudal leaders outside Java, such as the well-educated Sultan Hamid II of Pontianak, were mostly opposed to central rule from Java, preferring a federal republic.

Outnumbered and unpopular with the nationalist and anti-foreign masses, they had to contend with becoming historical footnotes. These days Sultan Hamid’s role as the designer of the Garuda national coat of arms is barely recognized in the nation’s official historiography.

Admittedly, the absence of indigenous nobility as “etiquette role model” is not exclusive to Indonesia. It has been and is still a common problem in developing nations with experiences of colonialism. China is one.

The recent international outcry over the behavior of Chinese tourists, which ranges from rowdiness, physical assault to lack of toilet training, is proof enough. In China’s case, the root of the problem can be traced back to the Maoist war against Confucianism, then denounced as a decadent relic of feudal imperialism.

Although Confucius’ virtues are now back in favor with the Chinese Communist Party ─ judging by President Xi Jinping’s declaration of the CCP as defender of Confucian virtues last year ─ the damage of their decades of absence from the Chinese psyche is apparent.

Yet the solution isn’t as simple as going back to one’s roots. Even in the Western experience, not all aristocratic ideals have survived into the 21st century; those which have are usually compatible with humanist ideals. Therein perhaps lies the key.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at

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