Friday, September 29, 2023

Commentary: Nationalism Is a Two-Way Street

Martin Schell
May 26, 2015 | 11:10 am
Yogyakarta residents queue to buy cooking gas. (Antara Photo/Andreas Fitri Atmoko)
Yogyakarta residents queue to buy cooking gas. (Antara Photo/Andreas Fitri Atmoko)

It’s easy for people to forget that nationalism is a two-way street.

One direction faces outward, which comes into play when a country carefully evaluates the importation of foreign foods and medicines, as well as the assimilation of concepts about human rights, governance, banking, etc.

The other direction faces inward, uniting citizens through common interests that relate directly to daily life rather than being defined in terms of mass opposition to pressure from the outside.

The inward direction can be understood as a kind of social glue that binds people who differ in wealth, language, or ethnic origin. Merdeka — independence from colonial rule — would have been impossible without it, and true national sovereignty will disappear if the glue ever loses its hold in the future.


Indonesia traditionally has very strong cohesiveness at the local level, called gotong royong in Java. People who live in the same village know each other through daily acquaintance and help each other, working together for special events like a neighborhood wedding or for regular community maintenance (kerja bhakti) such as clearing weeds.

In each neighborhood ward — which consist of 30-50 households — matters such as road repair, street lighting, garbage disposal, and night patrol (siskamling) are all decided democratically, often by voice vote. Finances are kept transparent with scrupulous records and open discussion.

The late Raul Manglapus, a senator and later cabinet member in the Philippines, documented in his book "Will of the People" the prevalence of such village politics in diverse cultures around the world, and he concluded that democracy is a universal value.

However, an obstacle inevitably arises when unity expands from a village to a larger entity. The likelihood of personally knowing a leader decreases and leaders rarely know all of their constituents by sight. One way to get to “know” a leader is to take him or her to dinner or to do another type of favor; unfortunately, such acquaintance-building easily gets corrupted.

The spirit of nationalism is essential for leading the way out of the morass of corruption, collusion and nepotism. However, history shows that such a transformation is generally best accomplished by evoking domestic “soft power” rather than imposing military discipline on the entire population.

Soft power nationalism has already been described on these pages by Johannes Nugroho, who discussed “civic culture” earlier this year. Civic culture basically means mutual respect, including traits such as tolerance (“live and let live”) and cooperation. Johannes rightly identified queue jumping as a failure to cooperate and respect one another.

However, poor people swarming like ants in their rush to get free handouts are not the only perpetrators of queue chaos. Jakarta’s streets are full of middle-class and wealthy drivers who seem oblivious to the concept of cooperating in order to improve traffic flow. Taking turns to merge at toll road entrance and exit ramps was virtually unknown before this decade.

In the Information Age, a more significant form of mutual respect involves transparency and cooperative information flow. Indonesians in both the private and public sectors still show an outmoded preference for the so-called “mushroom theory of management” (i.e., “keep them in the dark and feed them excrement”).

A recurrent example of the mushroom theory can be seen when one is in a boarding lounge and suddenly hears that one’s flight has been delayed. An attempt to clarify the duration of the delay often ends in frustration, with airline employees (who are themselves “kept in the dark”) unable to provide information beyond the platitude “wait a little while” (sebentar).

A more general example occurs when one thinks a transaction is simple but in fact a hidden hierarchy is “processing” it. This happened to me recently at a bank in Surakarta when my wife and I submitted a domestic wire transfer at 12:05 p.m. After hearing the nebulous “sebentar” several times over the course of 40 minutes, we were finally informed that the head office in Jakarta could not be reached yet to grant permission.

Surely, we could have been given that information sooner, even though the local staff were honestly doing their best to contact the head office in the vain hope that “any minute now” they might get permission during lunch hour. So, we went to lunch. At 1:50, just as we finished eating, my wife received a call saying that the transfer had indeed been processed.

In the public sector, the equivalent of customer service is dedication to the needs of one’s fellow citizens, not only by being responsive to them individually as “customers” but also by respecting them collectively in the sense of placing the good of society above personal gain.

In recent years, I have seen a new spirit of service in some government offices, even to the point of honoring a verbal agreement to “come back for your receipt tomorrow” (because the printer was broken). Indonesia has made progress in the era of Reformasi, but it still has a long way to go on the road to a civic culture based on mutual respect and informed consent.

Martin Schell has resided in his wife’s hometown in Central Java since 1995. He currently works as a business consultant and is an adjunct faculty member in the Management Communications Department of New York University’s Stern School of Business. Contact him at 

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