Indonesia’s Silent Majority Silent While Country Is Hijacked

October 10, 2011

Shattering events in a country don’t seem to stay in the mind for long. People watch, aghast, as world-changing circumstances unfold all over the globe. But inevitably, after a short period of engagement, they get bored and wander off to have a cup of tea and a good lie down. An epidemic of Attention-Deficit Disorder washes over whole nations – and the events, no matter how momentous, fade from the collective memory.

The inability of many to register the world’s turning-points in anything other than short-term memory means that opportunities to recognise history in the making are passed over, and the chance of learning from these is lost. Even Arnold Toynbee must have forgotten that in 1919 when he famously paraphrased George Santayana’s 1905 words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and presented them as his own.

At a local establishment last week, three TVs were showing motorcycle racing, rugby and a documentary on Hiroshima. The assembled patrons’ attention was evenly divided between the two sports. The scenes from Japan went unnoticed. When the thirty-something sports fan beside me finally glanced at the documentary channel, I asked him: “What do you think of that?” He looked at the rubble and melted bodies for a second and said, “Ah, I don’t like horror movies.” I replied that it was real and that we were watching actual atomic warfare and its consequences. He dismissed me with “Mate, I don’t like that First World War stuff either.” I don’t think history has taught him much.

And it wasn’t that long ago that we all watched vision from media cameras attached to bombs in their horrifying trajectories of death. Gripping at first, it soon became just another high-tech middle-eastern war; another night’s entertainment on the tube. And after a week, it was back to the soaps and sinetrons, banal crime shows and Big Brother.  We apparently preferred Reality Shows to reality. Memories fade, events become irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.  Secure in our non-caring, non-engaged stupor, we ignore what is actually happening and become part of the silent majority that just lets bad things keep happening.

And so it is with Indonesia today. This wonderful country, populated with vast numbers of friendly, tolerant people, is losing its identity, its culture and even its reputation in the world. It once prided itself on being a secular democracy protected by constitutional guarantees of religious tolerance and guided by the principles of Pancasila. Now, dragged down by the twin dead-weights of religious fundamentalism and endemic corruption, Indonesia is sliding into an abyss of graft and Middle Ages theocracy. Its economy is being shaken by the astonishing hubris of scandal-prone political ‘elites’ motivated by greed and self-interest, and foreign investor confidence is being rattled by the jingoistic demands of inexperienced and incompetent ministers.

A small minority of Islamic zealots, tacitly supported by some police of dubious morality, continue to attack adherents of other faiths, including Muslims belonging to sects other than their own. They persecute those of the Ahmadiyah faith, branding them heretics, despite a peaceful Ahmadiyah presence in Indonesia for decades before the arrival of Arab-influenced Wahhabi fundamentalists in this country. A biased judiciary hands out 5-month sentences to murderers of Ahmadis, while giving their victims twice that for ‘inciting the crime’. They’ve probably forgotten, or maybe don’t even know that an Ahmadi wrote the Indonesian National anthem. Incredibly, in direct contravention of the constitution, a ministerial decree has even been passed which prohibits Ahmadi activities. Elsewhere, low-level officials even defy Supreme Court orders to stop their harassment of Christians, keeping places of worship closed by force and herding worshippers away as if they were animals.

At many pesantren – Islamic boarding schools – Saudi and Pakistani-trained clerics continue their jihadist indoctrination of Indonesia’s youth under the guise of religious education. Illegal vigilante groups, such as the FPI, continue to oppose anything except a strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, creating fear and unrest in the communities that they, and their sponsors, relentlessly target. Even iconic Wayang theatre figures, for centuries a part of the culture of Java, have been targeted as heretical by fundamentalists determined to destroy the rich traditions of Indonesia and replace them with an Arabic culture. Meanwhile, on religious issues, the silent majority stays silent.

They also say nothing about their government, where the corruption blatantly exhibited by many politicians and government officials passes completely under their radar. Blatantly biased judgements by corrupt elements of the courts don’t attract more than a mutter of protest either. Religious bias – in favour of one flavour of Islam – elicits no opposition for fear of being denounced as a ‘bad Muslim’. Lowering of educational standards, decay of infrastructure and lack of community improvements caused by embezzlement and theft produces a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders.

About 70 million Indonesians don’t vote at all, so they don’t even use their voices for dissent. By embracing GOLPUT – the Indonesian way of expressing disenchantment with the political process by choosing not to vote – or by just being apathetic, they leave the field clear for political parties to continue to hold ‘gift-giving rallies’ in return for votes, thereby creating toxic, self-serving elites who end up doing whatever they want. If this is democracy, I don’t recognise it. Isn’t it better to stand up, speak up and be counted? What a waste of opportunities to change the process for the better!

And what of the ‘moderate Muslims’ In Indonesia – those who do not embrace the retrograde views of the increasingly powerful fundamentalist factions? Do they really see Wahhabi demands as relevant to a modern Indonesia? Do they want a nation that can take its place on the world stage, or a controlling theocracy, masquerading as a pseudo-democracy, that is incapable of separating Church from State? Do they really want the creeping implementation of Shariah Law to continue with the continuing enactment of more stealthy, unconstitutional by-laws?

The changes occurring in Indonesia now are not a series of dramatic events that polarise people’s views and have them openly rebelling. They are instead symptoms of an insidious, creeping malaise that, while it may disturb the silent majority of Indonesians, does not seem to marshal enough concern or engagement to incite open rebellion. It should, because they are a threat to the very fabric of Indonesia itself. But to act against a threat, people must first perceive it as a threat. Maybe that has not yet happened because of the slow and stealthy nature of the changes.

Indonesia is at the cross-roads. Apart from Bali, where religion is still the domain of the spirit and not a political weapon, where religious tolerance is the norm, and where Pancasila is observed in practice rather than as a polemic, Indonesia’s silent majority needs to rise up and speak with one voice.  It needs to tell its politicians, public servants and religious leaders that it has had enough of incompetence, cronyism, corruption and religious bigotry. It needs to re-visit those lessons of history that chronicle the submerging of peaceful and tolerant cultures by foreign ones which are dominating, violent and crave control.

Unless of course, the silent majority agrees with the death of integrity in politics, supports a savage rise in religious intolerance and looks forward to the imposition of an Arabian culture. In which case, keep saying and doing nothing. Your wishes will be granted.


  1. Great piece of writing, Vyt! I agree with all what you said here. The creeping ‘Islamization’ and ‘Arabization’ as pursued by the country’s hardliners and extreme conservatives is really a present danger for a modern, democratic and multi-ethnic Indonesia. Let’s hope that the silent majority will wake up and steer against this medieval tide which tries to turn back time.

    • Thanks. For most Indonesians, it unfortunately seems to be a case of ‘Wake me at ‘Shariah o’clock, please’. But the president keeps hitting the snooze button, the Islamists and corruptors who truly hold the reins of power in Jakarta keep up their betrayal of a nation … and the nation keeps dozing. So sad.

  2. Since first visiting Indonesia in 1993 and frequently thereafter, I’ve noticed this malaise. Tolerance and mutual respect seem to be giving way to fundamentalism and apathy. Of course, part of this was due to Suharto’s success in stamping out extremism whether separatist, leftist or religious, I guess these elements have always been there. As an observer who cares about Indonesia I keep hoping for the moderate Muslims to stand up and say “enough”. They don’t. It’s your country guys, better stand up now because tomorrow may be too late.

  3. Well done – a brave article – so many relevant questions – many worth debating. But politics & religion aside – I’d like to comment on the ‘social apathy’ mentioned in this post. (Apologies for the length).

    There’s seems to be an irony here…

    Until quite recently, Indonesia didn’t have a middle class. During my first visits (early 1970’s onwards) much of the country’s population was still fairly agrarian – and most were poor…& obviously – in a broad sense – many Indonesians still remain economically challenged today.

    But almost 40 yrs on – there’s been an undeniable shift in Indonesia’s sociological & economic landscape – it’s not massive – but it’s certainly significant. The Indonesian ‘middle class’ has finally emerged.

    And so today, it’s all about – easy credit – perumahan developments – new cars in the driveway – flat screens in the living room – domestic travel/leisure lifestyles (holidays in Bali) – smart phones – laptops – retail therapy – etc – etc. All the elements that you’d expect to find within the socio-economic fabric of any developing nation.

    But along with this class shift, there’s also (to the horror of many expatriates) something else. Along with this development, there’s that dreaded shallow, aspirational, materialistic, self-interested, apathetic attitude – that typical mindset or manner, that so many expatriates have tried get away from.

    And so herein lies the irony.

    So many expatriates have fled their own societies and come & live in Bali – some wanting to elude that soul destroying rat-race culture. So many folk sold up and transmigrated, all wanting to rebirth to a more simple, unpretentious lifestyle – their own version of an exotic island dream – a life of new possibilities. But somewhere along the way it all got screwed up. Everything they were trying to avoid is now beginning to now re-emerge. But this time around, it’s a mutated ‘Indonesian’ version – & possibly worse than the original strain.

    Indonesia is really just starting to enjoy their turn at something many others countries have already lived through – and along with it, they’re making all the same mistakes – of course. And like watching a car crash occur in slow motion – but without any way to prevent it – many are resigned to simply grinding their teeth down to stumps – terrified that their island dream is about to disappear.

    But hopefully, we can believe – that like ourselves – people eventually come to the there senses before it’s all too late. Because, if we don’t believe in this… if we feel it’s all just totally hopeless. Then perhaps we’re living in the wrong country… and perhaps we need to find another nation that isn’t guilty of similar crimes…

    …but somehow I feel this would be almost impossible.

    • A wonderfully insightful comment – thank you.
      I think you are spot on with the observation about Indonesia’s middle classes. I also think there will be even more difficulties for them in the near future, being squeezed as they are between old-world Indonesian traditions, the strict prohibitions of emerging fundamentalism and the lure of Western consumerism.
      As pervasive apathy is often a symptom of stress, I wonder whether the apparent lack of interest in what is happening with their country is just self-protection. I mean, you can’t see the threats if your head is firmly buried in the sand … 😉

      • Cheers B – always enjoy your articles…Particularly this one.

        Regarding this idea of self -protective behaviour…

        It seems to me – living within this over-saturated media age – many societies(ours included) are literally in a state of complete detachment.
        So much so, that not only are they disconnected from reality – but they actually have no real interest in it – none at all.
        Online identities (Facebook) have almost become more relevant than the people’s real world/life identities. (I understand that last statement requires further existential examination – but no space for that).
        People don’t seem to really(long term)give a dam what the authorities are doing – only unless it interrupts the feed of their media bubble fantasy.
        So the question begs – in a society drifting further and further toward a ‘Baudrillard’ type state of ‘Hyperreality’.
        Is it really surprising that societies at large have their head in the sand? Or in this case – remain glued to their screens? 😉

  4. Great article!

    I am also an expat living in Bali and, although I love it here and the friendliness of the people, seeing so much of what I enjoy unravel before my very eyes is painful to watch. I also take an interest in politics and it seems that the Indonesian people have long given up on politicians, many just thinking they are too corrupt, yet this gives the men in suits the freedom to keep destroying the country and taking huge swathes of it for themselves.

    Far too much of Orwell’s ‘1984’ seems to be coming to life whereby society is dumbed down by trivial issues such as sport while the government continues its corruption virtually unchecked and any interest in matters such as politics are branded as ‘boring’ and ‘stupid’ by most people.

    I think the former regime should shoulder much of the blame for failing to provide its people with a decent education as, without this, the population is condemned to a life of ignorance and apathy. Get the education right first and then you have the foundation to build on. Problem is, how do you do that when so many people only see education as a way to make money?

    • Yes – it is the most vicious of vicious circles. Shame.

  5. Oh Vyt, what a very brave post.
    I think you understand the culture more than most and I thank you for being able to express it so succintly.
    Enjoy your dream while it is still there, I guess is the answer.
    I’m sure you are aware of the many dramas going on in Melbourne currently with Aussies in Bali.
    Why, oh why, do these people insist on going to Kuta and embarrassing us all?

  6. This is all spot on B but we’re missing a higher level understanding of how things work in the spiritual realm. Our collective mind and heart frequencies shape the world around us, and unless people start to awaken and realize their inner potential, no amount of fighting whatever corrupt systems in society will work. I think Bali is the perfect place for major awakenings to happen due to its spiritual nature. I just hope that the expats that do come to Bali seeking freedom from their previous physical world would in fact help channel the underlying spiritual realm outwards, rather than turning the more spiritual Balinese into materialism, which is part of a controlling method of the 1%.

    • Maybe yes; maybe no.
      While there is a spiritual component to Bali, most people – expats and locals – also have to live in the material world, and this may well be the venue where change will have most effect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: