Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | December 29, 2006

Signposts-1: “Multiculturalism”

When the revolutionary youths gathered in 1928 and took a Youth Oath (Sumpah Pemuda), under the nervous gaze of the Dutch colonial government, they never imagined that the event would later stand to be the political foundation of the Indonesian nation and nationhood. The occasion was less than a heroic one, only hundreds people came to represent youth groups from all over the archipelago, still called the Netherlands Dutch Indies. There were Jong Sumatranen Bond (Sumatra Youth Group), Jong Ambon (Ambonese Youths), Jong Sulawesi (Sulawesi Youths), and many more groups acting on behalf of youth organizations. The event was called Kongres Pemuda (Youth Congress). It was the time when Wage Rudolf Supratman sang Indonisch, Indonisch, a melancholic song that would later be converted into Indonesia Raya, the national anthem of Indonesia.

Kongres Pemuda lingers on the national memory, commemorated every October 28 as Hari Sumpah Pemuda (the Youth Oath Day). Indonesians must remember the date, October 28, 1928, as the historic moment when Indonesian nationhood came into being, embodied in words of the youth oath that pledges allegiance to One Nation, One Fatherland, One Language called “Indonesia.” Indonesians find the root of their national-self on the Youth Oath. The self has stayed unwavering from the moment when the pledge was read to the moment when the nation faces the challenge of global capital forces. The self is Negara Kesatuan Indonesia (United Indonesia).

History textbooks praise Kongres Pemuda to be the earliest evidence of Indonesian multiculturalism. Teachers and politicians refer to Kongres Pemuda to illustrate how different ethnic and cultural groups can come together, transcend their primordial interests, and act as a national collective. The congress participants no longer pursued groups’ interests, but were engaged in a rational discussion that catered to a common interest, a kind of Habermasian rational discourse found in literary cafes in Europe. In other words, history teaches Indonesians to appreciate how the Indonesian multiculturalism has been constructed out of a rational assumption that one can put one’s ethnic and religious self below the common, national self.

When the notion of multiculturalism is stripped off of its cultural imaginations and reduced to a procedural political process, it loses most of its complex cultural meanings. Multiculturalism is not merely a political construct, like what most theorists of multiculturalism argue, understood to work like a judicial ruling, but is a fantasized and desired, for some is even feared, lived world. A society becomes a multicultural society only when it seeks for a common denominator that could be used for the interest of all members, and not only for certain groups. The key words here are “seek” and “denominator”, as multiculturalism is no more than a tool that people appropriate and use to imagine what social collectivity they want to acheive.

To build the notion of multiculturalism from a foundational principle, such as the national self, would risk to de-sensitize the concept from its most powerful pragmatic role. It opens up the space for people to come forward with their multiple affects. Multiculturalism is not the destination but a necessary lived world that allows fantasy and desire to emerge.


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