Javanese culture berrier to democracy, say observers

The dominant non-confrontational nature of Javanese culture is responsible for the failure of democracy in Indonesia, as it does not encourage people to speak out or be open to criticism, observers say.

Speaking at a launch for the book Mikul Dhuwur Mendhem Jero ("Shoulder the load, bury it deep") written by former vice presidential office secretary Prijono Tjiptoherijanto, former president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid admitted to facing difficulties in openly criticizing certain figures whom he respected.

"The options left for us are whether we prefer to preserve these values or exercise our logic," said Gus Dur, an influential figure in the country's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), whose members are mostly Javanese.

Also reviewing the book, which was launched on Thursday, were economic analysts Faisal Basri and Kartomo.

Gus Dur said this cultural barrier had prompted him to exploit humor when it came to criticizing people in order to prevent them from losing face.

"I use jokes too when criticizing Pak SBY. We have several times traded jokes. You know why? It is because we are living in Indonesia, in a power system that is mostly influenced by Javanese values. Only a few people (here) can positively respond to sharp criticism," Gus Dur said, referring to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by his popular acronym.

Gus Dur, however, asserted that the nation should start accustoming itself to openly criticizing leaders to keep them from arbitrary and arrogant ways of governing.

"The more educated people, the more capable; they should learn to accept criticism. We must encourage ourselves to criticize our leaders to prevent them from governing arrogantly. Being open-minded is part of democracy," Gus Dur said.

The book contains Prijono's views about the country's current political, economic and social problems. In one of the chapters, Prijono, who now heads the Indonesian Family Planning Association (PKBI), lashes out at the government for failing to support the family planning campaign.

Prijono resigned from the vice presidential office following the issuance of a controversial internal memo sent to Cabinet ministers and heads of government institutions, suggesting that they skip meetings with the House of Representatives if they considered them a waste of time.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla denied having instructed Prijono to circulate the memo, prompting the latter to step down.

Commenting on the book, Faisal said the country's younger generation had adopted a new way of expressing their views, therefore "leaders must leave behind their narrow mindset in governing the state."

"Losing popularity should not be a big deal, if we are taking sides with the people," said Faisal, who earlier quit the National Mandate Party, which he said had failed to accommodate people's aspirations.

"I believe that the people have their own (collective) wisdom. They have a sense of democracy and, indeed, political maturity. It's the political elite who fail to promote and accept the values of democracy," Faisal said.

"Look at the people. They managed to survive the turbulence and select their leaders in line with their wishes. While the people are manageable, the problem lies in the leaders."

Kartomo from the University of Indonesia (UI), however, suggested that Indonesians maintain their traditional values.

"We must learn from Russia and Japan, which have explored science and technology as weapons to defeat the United States' domination," he said.

* Published by The Jakarta Post on
April 30, 2005