While superficially we still affirm our love for the Republic of Indonesia, a unitary state with hundreds of ethnic groups; and our own state motto Unity in Diversity, we are also watching the pillars that support our Indonesian identity slip away.
Linguistically, it has become a trend for eateries, shops, companies and even roadside food peddlers as well as politicians to advertise themselves and their wares in English, sometimes erroneously. Indonesian politicians and celebrities have been talking in a hybrid language of Indonesian injudiciously sprinkled with English words, all in an attempt to sound “sophisticated.” Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a speaker of this cannibalized tongue.
While it is highly desirable that more and more Indonesians can speak English and other international languages, to use English words while the equivalents exist in Indonesian appears superfluously inept. The intonation and pronunciation in the Indonesian language certainly differ from those of English, and when English words are forcibly wedged in Indonesian sentences, the result is often mispronunciation, and, worse, contextual misuse of the term itself.
For example, many middle-class Indonesians use the word “event” to sound urbane and sophisticated but end up pronouncing it as “even.” Many also confuse “boring” and “bored,” saying “Saya lagi boring” or literally “I am boring” while trying to say “I am bored.” So what started as an attempt at sophistication has become a parody of pretentiousness and ignorance at best, not to mention the distasteful desecration of another language.
English is not the only language adopted by Indonesians who seem desperate to get away from using their own language. For the religious “middle-class” Muslims in Indonesia, to make gatherings sound “Islamic,” liberal use of Arabic is usually the norm, even when the majority of those in the audience may not be fully versed in Arabic. Even the national greeting has changed from Indonesian “Selamat Pagi” or “Selamat siang” or “Selamat malam” to “Assalamu alaikum.”
Similarly, the Indonesian dress code, at least for Muslim women, has changed for the past decade. The hijab, a mode of dressing common to Middle Eastern women, has been adopted by many as a sign of their religious identity.
These outbursts of “other-Indonesian” identities are perhaps the antithesis of what was happening before the Reformasi. Under President Suharto, businesses were forbidden by decree to have foreign names. Indonesian Chinese were required to discard their Chinese names and patronymics in favor of more Indonesian-sounding names. Further back in time, President Sukarno, the man deemed responsible for ending Dutch rule, ranted against the Beatles and westernization, even ordering raids against long-haired young men, forgetting that many ancient men inhabiting the archipelago also had long hair.
Frequent government interventions regarding what it meant to be Indonesian in the past, apart from politics, also underlines the fact that, if truth be told, there is no such thing as Indonesian culture. There exist Javanese, Batak, Sundanese, Peranakan, Betawi, Madurese, Dayak, Bugis, Balinese and many other cultures across the archipelago, but no single entity that represents all.
Indonesia is above all a political construct, a geopolitical entity that encompasses the former Netherlands East Indies. Suharto did endeavor to define and encourage what it was to be Indonesian but in so doing, many Indonesians outside Java felt he was imposing the Javanese culture on the rest of the country.
Arguably, our current tenuous national consciousness has also been brought about by the dashed hopes of what independent nationhood could bring. To many Indonesians, the state has come to represent hypocrisies, lies and broken promises.
The inconsistencies between government policies and their implementation, the rampant corruption at every level of government and the seemingly benign face of government officials, the inherent shame that many of us feel when we watch our neighbors overtake us in development and prosperity arguably mean that there is very little to be proud of. However, state indoctrination also forces us to profess our pride in the country. So, in the end, perhaps, many Indonesians have chosen to behave and speak in un-Indonesian ways, preferring foreign words and food but at the same time adamantly maintain that they love the country and are proud of being Indonesian.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya.