Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Indonesia in miniature

Pluralism and rational disagreement about ‘the truth’ are common features in practically all contemporary societies. Indonesia with its multiplicity of peoples, languages, religions, traditions, and cultures is an extreme example. Pluralism is an empirical given, but often it is not positively valued. And even if diversity is not positively valued the question arises how to create a civilized society. There is no point in denying the question, there is no easy answer. The Republic of Indonesia is an archipelago of approximately 18,100 islands; from west to east it is almost 5000km, and from north to south it is 1770km. And Indonesia is populated with around 235 million people – and the island of Java is overpopulated with plus minus 130 million (while the island is less than 7% of the total of land mass). Indonesia is multiplicity. This is, though, already a simplification. The ‘is’ cannot function as a mirror. It is done anyway. In 1975, for example, ‘Taman Mini Indonesia Indah’ was opened by the wife of then president Soeharto. ‘Taman Mini’ is a whole country in a single park; each province is represented by a traditional house (see: http://www.tamanmini.com/). As if a complex history can be reduced to a costume, ready-made to be printed on a calendar and sold as a souvenir. The slogan ‘bhinneka tunggal ika’ (unity in diversity), another example, has the danger of denying diversity and thus the freedom of individual citizens and therefore differences between individuals and groups. The emphasis on the oneness is a matter of establishing a unity where diversity is and where potential social unrest lingers. Thus while diversity is an empirical fact in Indonesia, these diverse phenomena are only seen as representations of the one and only. The ‘grand design’ becomes then more important than particular lives of individual citizens, as Stewart writes (in: ‘On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection’): “In diversity is unity; all phenomena are miniaturizations of the essential features of the universe.” This is a different way of saying that one person is all persons, but that is, to speak with Jorge Luis Borges, “a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.” As if a meta-national essence is needed to keep the polity from disintegrating, from a Balkanization, even if this is at the expense of citizens’ individual dignity and the right not to be patronized.

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