Johannes Nugroho: Indonesia Just Scratching the Surface of Democracy


MARCH 04, 2015

It was 50 years ago when political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba coined the term “civic culture” in their book by the same name, to describe a political culture that is supposedly conducive to democracy. Although their ideas have been contested on various grounds — such as, for example, the authors’ failure to consider the effects of globalization on political systems or culture — they are still relevant to the discussion of democracy.

Recently a motorcyclist in Jakarta, falling off his bike in an accident, became wedged under a car and dragged along for 30 kilometers before the driver was forcibly stopped by the police.

The unfortunate youth died. The car driver later said he was aware he had accidentally hit someone, and that person was under his car but, seeing a mob of passers-by converge on the scene, he became scared of being lynched and decided to speed away.

His alleged fear of lynching is of course understandable, given the frequency of mob violence against car drivers who fatally hit either motorcyclists or pedestrians. A recent case occurred in Tangerang where a furious mob lynched and burned alive a motorcycle thief who had been caught in the act.

This brand of street “justice” evidently shows a lack of trust in the authorities, a sentiment confirmed by the Jakarta driver who confessed that the presence of the police on the scene magnified his fear of being treated unfairly. He clearly didn’t believe the police would protect him from mob violence.

Almond and Verba, on the other hand, described trust in authority as an indispensable ingredient in civic culture. Members of a civic culture society typically expect to be treated well and fairly by their government and its agencies, something that is at present absent in Indonesia.

Another common trait of civic culture is tolerance towards those with different views. This is also, to a certain extent, missing in Indonesia where minority groups are sometimes treated as second-class citizens. For example, a recent seminar on providing healthcare for the 1965-66 Communist Purge victims in Solo was broken up by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who alleged the seminar was an attempt to spread communism.

Intolerance and disregard of the rule of law were also on display in Sidoarjo, East Java, only last week when GP Ansor, the youth organization of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) successfully demanded the removal from the town square new statues depicting traditional rural occupations. The Muslim youth organization deemed the statues to be an encouragement of idolatry and a violation of Islamic tenets.

Yet another civic culture attribute is sadly lacking in our society: civic cooperation, defined as the ability of citizens to work together for the common good. Forming orderly queues is a good test case. It was only last year that we learned a young girl had been trampled to death while queueing at Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s residence in Makassar to receive alms.

In a society steeped in the traditions of civic culture, queueing in an orderly manner is an ingrained habit, and queue-jumping a social taboo. Yet time and again we read reports across the country of chaos whenever queueing is involved. Tales of people fainting and being trampled on are common around the time of the Islamic Idul Adha festivities. The distribution of free rice at a Chinese temple in Tuban, East Java, last year also resulted in several people injured from being shoved and pushed while waiting for their turn.

In Japan, by contrast, the victims of the Fukushima tsunami in 2011 conducted themselves with discipline and calmness, even during a terrible disaster. It was an excellent example of civic culture at work. One British journalist wrote: "but across the disaster area, journalists have searched in vain for a single case of violence, looting, panic — or even queue-jumping.”

Almond and Verba have argued that the traits of civic culture must be present and instilled in society for democracy to survive and flourish. However, other political scientists have also proposed that civic culture attributes are the effects of democracy rather than vice versa.

Academic debate aside, what is undeniable is that democracy functions best when civic culture is strong. Democratic institutions such as general elections, parliament and judicial system can arguably be put in place with relative ease. But, as Indonesia’s own young democracy shows, the values and habits of democracy remain elusive.

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