Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Indonesia’s Pancasila Isn’t What It Used to Be

In celebrating the birth of Pancasila today, one cannot help but ask whether the state ideology is still relevant for Indonesians. The answer, sadly, is no. Even though Pancasila is still important as a foundation of our nation, it is no longer as important to Indonesians’ daily lives as it once was. But rather than call the ideology dead and abandon it, we better find ways to make it relevant once more.

The history of Pancasila is well known. It was developed in the final days of the Japanese occupation, forged by nationalists to create a social contract among the citizens of the future nation of Indonesia. It was hoped that Pancasila would become a foundation and a guide in creating a harmonious society based on religious tolerance, humanism, nationalism, democracy and social justice.

Unfortunately though, years even before the fall of Suharto in 1998, Pancasila started to lose its luster, notably in competition with religious ideologies. Unlike religion, Pancasila is something that gives neither God’s blessing in this life nor salvation in the next. Pancasila has no deity behind it that can demand obedience.

As a result, Pancasila is only appealing as a state ideology as long as the government is able to rule the country wisely.

The first few decades of Indonesian independence showed Pancasila’s promise. It was used to unify people from diverse religious, social and ethnic backgrounds. It was used to rally people against the Dutch and various rebellions in the 1950s and 1960s. It was also used to temper the minorities’ fears of a tyranny of the majority by stressing the religious harmony, humanism and equality among people from various backgrounds.

By the last decade of the New Order, however, government corruption at every level made a mockery of social justice. The rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer and oppressed. Both the authoritarian government and the electoral shams undermined the idea of a democracy based on deliberation and consensus, as the consensus was imposed from the top. National unity was rattled by misconduct in East Timor, Papua and Aceh. The miscarriage of justice by the law-enforcement agencies — from the courts to regular police officers — violated the idea of humanism itself. The use of religions as political tools upset the idea of religious harmony and tolerance.

Add to this mess the wrongheaded approach in teaching Pancasila in schools, such as by forcing students to simply memorize everything in the textbooks without understanding what Pancasila was all about. Here the government created a condition where people were simply fed up with Pancasila — specifically in the light of widespread misconduct of state representatives.

In short, the government’s misconduct and inability to bring prosperity to the people eroded trust in Pancasila as the guiding philosophy for our nation.

Not surprisingly, people started looking at alternative ideologies that did seem to walk the talk. It was like an old guide who kept telling people to walk through the uncertain trails of a jungle even when there was an adjacent highway with the same destination.

Often, people found guidance in religion, and as a result, it has become more and more important in public life. Unfortunately, without a good curriculum — one that teaches pluralism and exposes students to a variety of religions — people become more and more fanatical, listening to only a single intolerant viewpoint that declares “only my religion is right, the rest goes to hell and needs to be purged.”

This is the reason why Pancasila still has a role. Pancasila is important as a social contract that unites the diverse Indonesian society. It is losing its luster because it fails to adapt to the changing nature of Indonesian society. It was hijacked as a political tool to indoctrinate Indonesians to simply obey the government.

What we need is to free Pancasila from its shackles of doctrinaire rigidity.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and various officials have said there is a need to learn more Pancasila at school, but this would not do much to help the ideology regain its role. Instead, what the president should do is encourage honest discussions on Pancasila, opening the door to various interpretations of every single sila of the ideology, not just simply imposing rigid doctrinaire interpretations. In essence, Pancasila should be seen as an evolving contract that will take into account both political and economic changes in Indonesian society.

In comparison, even today in the United States debates still rage on the founding fathers’ intentions in drafting the Constitution. For instance, the idea of freedom of speech is still being debated, notably on what kind of speech is protected b and whether the Constitution protects socially unacceptable behavior such as “hate speech.”

The US Supreme Court decides on whether the government and legislators act in line with the Constitution. So in essence, the US Constitution remains important and relevant to citizens’ daily lives, as it is used as a guide of conduct: the government cannot draw up a policy in violation of the law.

That kind of debate is needed here too, to integrate Pancasila further into daily lives, to make it a living contract that remains relevant in guiding people in this modern and uncertain era. To simply impose a doctrinaire understanding of Pancasila will only have an adverse effect, as people are no longer seeing Pancasila as something important and relevant and they will loathe it.

The fate of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Green Book in Libya should warn people who want to impose Pancasila rigidly. After Qaddafi took power in the late 1960s, he wrote the Green Book, which he hoped would become the underlying philosophy of Libyan society. He in essence imposed the book on the people, making it required reading for everyone, and remaking society forcibly based on the ideas he propagated in the book without tolerating any criticism. When the current uprising hit Libya, these books were the first thing that people burned.

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University and a researcher at the Global Nexus Institute.

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