Johannes Nugroho: Substance Over Form Needed in Nation's Display of Patriotism


AUGUST 21, 2017

A video clip showing Chinese Indonesians conducting a flag ceremony to mark the 72th anniversary of the country's independence declaration in front of a Chinese temple in Palembang, South Sumatra, was widely shared on social media.

The post was no doubt meant to convey the message that ethnic Chinese are also patriots. While it is perfectly legitimate for jubilant Indonesians of diverse backgrounds to commemorate Independence Day with a flag-raising ceremony, it is increasingly evident that form has become more important than substance.

Almost as a counterpoint to the Palembang flag ceremony, an allegation was also made in Surabaya, East Java, that residents of a high-end residential estate in the west of the city had neglected to hoist the national flag outside their homes in the week before Independence Day. It was also a thinly veiled jibe at Chinese Indonesians because it is common knowledge that the elite estate is popular with upper-middle-class Chinese Indonesians.

Immediately after the Aug. 17 fanfare was over, reports emerged that residents of Ngawi, East Java, forcibly invaded and temporarily closed an Indomaret convenience store because it had allegedly failed to comply with the instruction to put up a flag.

There were signs that the government was determined to make the most out of this year's independence celebration. The Ministry of the State Secretariat issued a directive that the national flag was to be flown throughout the month, although compliance with the directive proved to be partial as by law it is only compulsory to fly the flag on Aug. 17. In the past, there was also a custom to do so three days before Independence Day and a few days, or a week, afterwards.

For the first time in living memory, attendees and invited guests at the formal Independence Day celebration at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta this year turned up in different ethnic costumes to reflect the diversity of Indonesia. In light of recent events and controversies injurious to pluralism, the wish to convey a symbolic reminder of the many parts that make the country is laudably apposite.

The new tradition at the palace demonstrates that the national ritual of celebrating Independence Day is far from being unchangeably sacred. The flag ceremony, for instance, did not become a yardstick for the display of nationalism until the days of President Suharto's rule (1967-1998) when the regime was prone towards militarism. Before that, celebrants, especially in the capital, would flock to the national stadium when President Sukarno delivered his fiery and often hypnotizing speeches. Those outside the capital would crowd around the radio to listen to his speech.

This year's celebratory mood was, however, marred by an incident in Bogor, West Java, where a teacher at the Ibnu Mas'ud Islamic School set fire to a flag banner in front of a neighboring house. Following his pyrotechnic act, he soon found his school picketed by an angry mob. The perpetrator was subsequently arrested by the police.

Most Indonesians would rightly condemn acts of sacrilege to the national flag, such as the Bogor incident. It is also safe to say that most would not sympathize with their compatriots who fail to fly the flag in front of their homes in a display of patriotism.

In many ways, the sentiment is understandable. Almost all Indonesians grew up with the tradition of attending flag ceremonies in their respective schools on a regular basis. The Suharto-era generations even took part in a compulsory weekly regimen of flag ceremonies. Stories of heroism involving the national flag during the independence struggle are aplenty – the most famous being the flag-tearing incident at Surabaya's Yamato Hotel, where freedom fighters lowered the Dutch tri-color and tore off the blue band, only leaving the red and white bands.

It is also not an exaggeration to say that Indonesia is one of the few nations on earth ─ the United States being another ─ intimately and frequently engaged in flag flying to mark events of national importance. Private residents flying flags on their properties are a common sight in the United States and the practice is, as the stories above illustrate, compulsory in Indonesia.

The multitude of flags, streamers and banners put out for Independence Day indeed creates a sense of festivity and adds color to the celebration, but it seems to have evolved into an imposition rather than a voluntary display of joyful remembrance. It has become a visible badge of patriotic respectability that many have sworn by.

Failure to fly the flag at your home is immediately interpreted as a traitorous act. Yet we must ask ourselves what such failure is traitorous to: Indonesia as a nation-state or the expectations of appearing loyal to it? The fact that there is considerable communal pressure to toe the line by flying the flag in itself suggests compliance rather than volition.

While symbolism is still very important in the country, we are also in danger of losing the substance of true patriotism by replacing it with ritual substitutes. Exuberant flag flying, flag ceremony attendance and singing the national anthem are poor substitutes for real acts of patriotism and civic duty in our everyday lives: following traffic rules when driving, not littering in public spaces, wise usage of fuel and electricity, not polluting waterways, paying taxes truthfully, avoiding corruption, collusion and nepotism especially for civil servants, and doing our best within our own respective work fields and endeavors.

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