Sunday 20 Jan 2019 | 02:32 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Jan 2019 | 02:32 | SYDNEY

This week in Jakarta: Independence, dangdut and sinking ships



21 August 2015 10:25

Marble-and-spoon races on Jakarta's streets. (Photo by the author.)

Jakarta was decked out in red and white this week as Indonesia marked 70 years of independence with celebrations on the main thoroughfares, in crowded neighbourhoods and online. Meanwhile, Jokowi delivered his first State of the Nation address as president, and his marine and fisheries ministry celebrated by sinking dozens of illegal fishing vessels in waters across the archipelago.

Red and white flags have been raised across the capital for the whole month in anticipation of Indonesia's 70th anniversary of its proclamation of independence from Dutch rule. Monday was a nationwide holiday to mark the day the first president and vice president, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, proclaimed independence via radio from a house in Central Jakarta. The handover of power took another four years, but 17 August 1945 is still celebrated as the day Indonesia was born as an independent nation. President Jokowi held a flag-raising ceremony at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on Monday, and took a different approach to leaders before him by inviting thousands of fishermen, farmers, small-business owners and other ordinary workers to celebrate the day together with government officials. 

Neighbourhoods across the capital held their own celebrations by raising flags, singing the national anthem and reciting the five pillars of the Pancasila, the state ideology that was also introduced by Sukarno. The philosophy which incorporates nationalism, internationalism, deliberative consensus, social welfare and religion has been debated and distorted over the years, but at essence it is the (mostly) inclusive ideology that enabled the disparate peoples of Indonesia to come together as a unified nation, and still guides the national identity today. In my street in South Jakarta, neighbours showed their national pride by celebrating all day and night with traditional games like rice-cracker-eating competitions and marble-and-spoon races, followed by dancing to dangdut music, Indonesia's unique style of Hindu, Arabic and folk pop.

On Sunday night before the holiday, Jokowi delivered his first State of the Nation address before a joint session of parliament. Downplaying the country's current economic woes, Jokowi framed his speech as a call to 'war' for peace, prosperity and happiness for the people. He blamed egoism, corruption and a lack of unity among state institutions for the nation's shortcomings and recommended a return to hard work, optimism and a shift of focus from consumption to production. The president pointed to last week's cabinet reshuffle as a potential 'bridge' to fulfill his promises to the people, and asked for support from all state institutions. Support is something Jokowi has lacked in his first 10 months as president, from his own party and elsewhere. Jokowi hopes the reshuffled cabinet will bring support for his policies, and help get the country's economy back on track. The rupiah this week sank to its lowest point since 1998.

In its rhetoric, the government continues to invite foreign investment and has begun to prepare for the ASEAN Economic Community. But at home the nationalist turn under Jokowi is plain to see. Following an offhand remark by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti that Indonesia should sink 70 illegal ships to mark the country's 70th year of independence, the ministry reported this week that it did in fact sink 34 foreign and 4 local illegal fishing vessels across the country to mark the holiday, with most of them coming from ASEAN neighbours Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.

Aside from sending mixed messages about Indonesia's open borders, the move projects a militarised and defensive image of Indonesia in the region. At the very least, an archipelago of sinking ships is an odd symbol to mark a nation's anniversary.

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