Birthday? / Why, you want to send gifts?
Religion? / You’re going to send me holiday basket, too?
Marital status? / Gawd, are you asking me out??
It was a particularly harried day when I swung by an electronic store to buy a fridge. I wasn’t a registered customer so the salesman insisted on creating an account. Even if I hadn’t been in such a hurry the questions would have been just as intrusive. What’s my birthday, religion or marital status have anything to do with buying electronics, pray tell?
I don’t know who started Indonesia’s notoriously detailed forms, which often have no definitive link to the issue at hand. For example, while I understand why our ID indicates blood type for health emergency, I don’t see why a cosmetics brand should inquire the same detail when I apply for loyalty card. Just as banks need to know birthday for verification, and perhaps religion to send appropriate holiday hamper, I fail to fathom why stores, movie theatres, charities, or a book club as happened once, would need to know those details. Last but not least—except for the tax office, my employers, tax office and the guy I’m seeing this weekend, why would anyone need to know my marital status?
And that has been well integrated into social interactions, amplified by our cultural makeup that has been formed mostly by the sense of sameness. Indonesians tend to pry and tick a box on each other as soon as they meet. How many times have you been casually asked by cabbies or fellow soccer moms of your religion, age, or native group? Instead of uniting, I feel the habit is divisively defining us. It’s creating boxes inside the society, because the mélange that makes up Republic of Indonesia is just that diverse. Cultures, traditions, mother tongues, religions, ethnicity—the list goes on forever if you insist to focus on the differences.
This world’s largest archipelago is also spread into three time zones, and transportation infrastructures have been lousy. Many Indonesians never leave the safe confines of culture or religion they grow up in, until they absolutely need to. While it’s certainly not easy to make these people feel united just because a bunch of former colonies collectively proclaimed independence in 1945, the rulers haven’t done their job either in teaching us how to learn, accept and live alongside our differences – with a special finger pointed at the 32-year Soeharto regime that just shoved everything down the carpet, thus creating unresolved suspicions and oppressed misunderstandings all around.
The 1998 Reformasi and Internet age have suddenly forced 245 million very diverse people to interact with each other intensively on multiple platforms. All those past disenchantments are now aired, often with no-holds barred demeanor. “You fear what you don’t understand” comes alive publicly, and most people end up clutching more on ‘kami’ (the exclusive word of ‘us’) than ‘kita’ (the inclusive word of ‘us’). And it’s very easy to draw that kami vs. kita line since not only we are that diverse, every personal detail is out there for everyone to nitpick into. We create the very trap that we are tragically sinking into.
And every election year, politicians gleefully capitalize on this. Just look at this year. Negative campaign is a pesky part of the political arena, but black campaign is another beast. Joko Widodo’s religion and ethnicity have been put under such microscope that he was unfairly forced to show a copy of his marriage certificate and family pictures performing umrah on campaign trail. On the other side, Prabowo Subianto has been a target of rumors and smears involving his marital status, private physical prowess, parents’ native background and son’s personal life. The despicable tactics have been further parlayed into the public not only by the usual henchmen of political machines, but also clerics (to support Prabowo Subianto) and self-proclaimed activists on social media (to support Joko Widodo), that have only so far reduced respect I initially reserved for both candidates. Instead of smartly luring the sizable number of undecided, both camps are increasingly chanting Bush-style “with us or against us” while riding on their high horses, using every divisive factor they can grab along the way. Forget Bhinneka Tunggal Ika while there’s a holier kami vs. kita.
News broke this week that Jokowi-JK would eliminate the religion column on ID once elected. It would’ve been a breakthrough indeed towards more seamless Indonesians, at least on official document, but unfortunately it was refuted. Moreover, looking at the submitted Vision-Mission documents, none of the camps state clearly how they’ll bridge differences let alone fend off the minorities when the majority acts unfairly, while one of them is going to win the election and inherit this fragile society now frayed further by their own campaign tactics.
“Beta siapa? Ose siapa? Bukan Islam, Kristen. Bukan Tulehu, Passo. Beta Maluku.” The exasperated football coach in the insightful movie Cahaya Dari Timur, based on Maluku’s 1999 sectarian conflict, reminded his disenfranchised team that regardless of differences everyone was playing for Maluku.
If only on this election year more Indonesians are aware enough to stand up and shout, “Saya siapa? Kamu siapa? Bukan Islam, Kristen. Bukan Cina, Melayu. Bukan soal berkeluarga, atau menduda. Bukan kami, tapi kita. Dan kita Indonesia.”
Yeah, if only.