Friday, December 3, 2010

A belonging that bonds the Indonesian nation

ONCE again it appears as if Indonesia is experiencing an unrelenting assault in terms of national disasters. After the eruption of Mount Merapi in Central Java, it appears that Mount Bromo in East Java is acting up again as well.
Yet in the midst of this alarm, I cannot help but re-state once again my profound admiration for our neighbours in Indonesia, a country I know so well and consider home, too. As someone who considers himself a proto-Asean citizen, I am pleased that the career path I chose two decades ago has allowed me to venture beyond the borders of my own country and to live in many other parts of Southeast Asia. And it is in Indonesia that I have witnessed the human spirit tried and tested time and again.

I recall the devastating impact of the earthquake in Jogjakarta half a decade ago, which practically levelled the entire district of Bantul, where Yudi, my constant beca driver, lives. I remember visiting what was left of Yudi's home and finding nothing but a tiny mountain of matchsticks that was once his humble abode, and how the buildings on the campus of Universitas Sunan Kalijaga (where I irregularly lecture) was split in half as if some gigantic knife had cut through a concrete birthday cake.

Yet, amid the devastation and despair, I also recall how ordinary citizens from all walks of life came together to repair the broken remnants of the city they loved: from students to celebrities, housewives to non-governmental organisation activists and relief teams; we were all there to pick up the pieces of Jogjakarta and in a year's time everyone cried out aloud: Jogja Bangkit Kembali! (Jogja shall rise again!)
Nation-building is a thorny and complicated process beset by all sorts of contingencies and variable factors that no technocrat or academic can account for. And the historians will remind us that the march of history is seldom pre-determined or linear. The winding path of history is precisely that: a progression that navigates itself around and above contingent disasters and unexpected variables that strike us from nowhere, unprepared. And yet it is a test of the human spirit to rise above some calamities and to accept the coming of such disasters with fortitude and quiet dignity.

Though critics may sound the alarm and seem sceptical in the manner in which the Indonesian state has responded to some of these crises, the real question for me is how Indonesian society itself has coped and is coping. In the absence of strong states, the only thing that keeps a society together is a sense of social bonding that allows each citizen to look beyond himself and his own needs, and to sympathise with others. In that respect the social bonding in and across Indonesian society is strong indeed, and perhaps much stronger in some other neighbouring countries. One is forced to ask: can and will the societies of Malaysia or Singapore react in the same manner if -- God forbid -- such a natural disaster were to land on our shores?

Ridden though the equation may be by variable factors that defy statistical analysis and computation, we need to ask such questions still: for it is the bane of modern-day nation-building to assume that nations are made up of development projects, industrial parks and tower blocks alone. The highways and bridges, malls and cinemas, do not consider themselves citizens of any nation. Infrastructure may be permanent in its concreteness, but they do not belong in the same way that citizens belong to communities and nations.

It is that ephemeral sense of belonging to the nation that counts the most in times of crisis. This is a factor that cannot be easily measured, any more than one's love for another can be counted by tallying the number of times one utters the words "I love you" on a roster. National belonging, like love, can only be demonstrated in contexts and situations that are particular; and national disasters happen to be -- unfortunately -- among the few occasions when this sense of national belonging can come to be demonstrated in the public domain. That is how and why such disasters come to be seen as national disasters, simply because they are tragedies that are shared by the nation as a whole, and consequently become the shared hardship of the nation as well.

Looking at it from the broader perspective we can and ought to enlarge our scope and regard these disasters as regional ones as well. Arriving at a time when the process of Asean-building remains ponderous and deliberate, we need to envisage these events as events that affect all of Asean. In the same way that the tsunami of the recent past was a shared disaster whose cost was borne by many, likewise our store of human sympathy and solidarity cannot stop at the invisible frontiers of the modern post-colonial nation-state. Living in an age of transborder pandemics and global security concerns, such a myopic view would be the undoing of us all.

While not trying to exploit the painful realities of the current wave of disasters in Indonesia, we ought to view these developments from a positive angle and see in them opportunity structures for the building of solidarity networks among the peoples of Asean. In the meantime, our thoughts -- and more importantly our deeds -- ought to go to the people of Java at the moment for what they have gone through of late. It is said by some that if God loves you, then He will shower you with trials and tribulations to test your mettle. If that be indeed the case, then God must love Indonesia with abundance. And the manner in which the Indonesians have rallied together in this time of crisis is a story that should inspire us all, too.

By Dr Farish A Noor senior research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur)

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