Speech Ayu Utami at ‘Indonesia Now’

25 Jun 2015


Ayu Utami

Ayu Utami

Ayu Utami (born 21 November 1968 in Bogor) is an Indonesian writer. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Indonesia, where she studied Russian language and literature. During her college years she began publishing reports and essays in newspapers. She has been a journalist for Indonesian magazines.  Shortly after Suharto banned three magazines in 1994, Ayu joined the Alliance of Independent Journalists to protest the ban. She continued her journalistic work underground, which included the anonymous publication of a black book on corruption in the Suharto regime. Utami’s first novel, Saman, appeared in 1998, only a few weeks before the fall of Suharto, helping to signal the changing cultural and political landscape in Indonesia. The novel won the Jakarta Arts Council’s first prize that year and caused a sensation, and controversy, among Indonesian artists and intellectuals. It was acclaimed by many reviews and was considered a new milestone in Indonesian literature. Saman won the Prince Claus Award. Ayu Utami currently works for Radio 68H, an independent news radio station that is broadcast all over the country, and as a writer for the cultural journal Kalam and in Teater Utan Kayu in Jakarta. 


The Spirit of Indonesia: Rasa, Reason, Religion

The Ghost

Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a child who lived with ghost stories. She lived in a beautiful stone house that was built by the giants of the colonial time. Which is to say that it was planned by and meant for big white people, even though the labour was done by small skinny brown people at a time when there was a big difference between being white and coloured. For reasons that the little girl didn’t understand, the whites left the land. Then a Chinese man owned the house for two decades. And then her father took it over. Her father was a ‘goverment man’. He had a gun, which he kept in a steel chest in his bedroom. The Chinese was probably a businessman who had done something wrong, or maybe he was a communist. The girl really didn’t know. What she knew and strangely got fond of were ghost stories.

There are different kinds of ghosts. Gendruwos live in the jungle. Kuntilanaks stay in tall bamboos groves and like to fly from tree to tree while happily laughing like crazy. Pocongs hop around cemeteries like giant jumping caterpillars. But, alas, all these ghosts reside in nature: in forests, trees, graveyards; places and spaces over which people don’t have control. They are not really part of us.

But, hold on now, there is one ghost. A city ghost! Beware, the grownups liked to tell her, if you hear the echoing sound of a pedlar’s slit drum in the middle of the night. He may be selling satay, or mi goreng, or mi toktok, or meatballs… If it is too late in the night, you had better beware. There have been several reports about people who went up to the midnight street seller and asked for a plate of satay, or mi goreng, or mi toktok, or meatballs. The seller wears a straw hat and prepares the order without comment. He comes with a strange dish, and only then do you realize that… he doesn’t have eyes, a mouth or nose. His face is flat. He is called Setan Murat. Setan Muka Rata. Flat Face Phantom.

Most ghosts are nature’s beings. But this ghost is the phantom of civilization. That’s what makes him special. He is part of us. I didn’t make up the story. I am only interpreting it. The story is there, with different versions from town to town. You may come across it in a conversation after the talk about other subjects has finished. Some foreign friends of mine raised this question: why do we always end up talking about ghosts in Indonesia?

Are Indonesians modern people who live with half their minds in the mythological realm? Now, I, the little girl who grew up with ghost stories, want to invite you to see ghosts not as a kind of superstition. Let’s be more appreciative about ghosts. Because our modern visions are not so different from the apparitions of ghosts.

Ben Anderson, in Imagined Communities or Spectre of Comparison, explains beautifully and insightfully that the formation of a nation is shaped by an imagination that may not be anchored in definite facts. It is anchored in selected facts. Indonesia is a vision come true. Our present-day Republik of Indonesia started with ‘ghosts of meaning’. If we don’t want to use the term ‘ghost’, let’s call it ‘spirit’.

The Spirit

When was the latest strong ‘apparition of spirit’ in Indonesia? It was in the last presidential election (2014). After a short euphoria over the Reformasi in 1998, Indonesians gradually lost their enthusiasm for elections. Little by little, people became disappointed with corrupt political parties, parliament members or government figures.

At the beginning of the presidential campaign last year, there was an atmosphere of apathy. But suddenly, only two months before Election Day, a spirit awakened, manifested in the form of a voluntary civic movement to support Jokowi. The movement was a reaction to ugly campaigns against Jokowi. But what were the slanders against him? That he was Christian and Chinese; as if being Christian and Chinese is wrong. (Oh, he was also accused of being the puppet of Megawati.)

The voluntary movement was launched under the slogans ‘Revolusi Mental’ and ‘Salam Dua Jari’ (‘Two Finger Greeting’, indicating victory). It was exactly a year ago that many people sang ‘Salam dua jari, jangan lupa pilih Jokowi….’ It was a good spirit. Not because it supported Jokowi per se, but because it fought against dirty campaigning. It fought against injustice. At the end of the day, we know, Jokowi won the election.

What is a spirit? A spirit, a ghost, is something you cannot see, cannot touch, but it has an impact on you, and it moves you. Last year, the spirit was strong. You could feel it.

Unfortunately, this year the spirit has started to fade away. Three things are worth mentioning here: 1) Conflict between the KPK (the Corruption Eradication Commission) and the Police. 2) The execution of capital punishment. 3) The economic situation. These three things have diminished people’s hope for Jokowi. Of the three, the first and the third seem strongly related to the sad situation that Jokowi is not supported by his own party. Jokowi is in a difficult and tricky situation. He doesn’t have enough support where he needs it. But he is not bad. And not a bad guy at all. I still have hope in him. We can discuss what makes me hopeful about him in the question and answer session.

One important thing that I want to stress here is that Indonesia has Spirit. Indonesia is not only its presidents. Indonesia is not only Jokowi, or SBY, or Megawati, or Gus Dur, or Habibie, or even Soeharto and Sukarno. Without belittling the roles of our respected leaders, Indonesia has Spirit. The Spirit that gives birth to those leaders, before they become leaders.

We can talk about this Spirit in an enthusiastic or an apathetic way. In an apathetic way, people say that Indonesia is an ‘auto-pilot state’. Negeri auto-pilot. This term appeared in the second period of the SBY administration (around 2012), describing the government’s absence in public management. The police were not there to protect civic rights, especially in cases of violence against minority groups. Corruption was decentralized and distributed. Business regulations were unpredictable. Traffic lights didn’t work and electricity went on and off. However, people survived in the absence of the government’s role. Each individual, each group, each civil network did what they needed to do with their own resources and mechanisms, as if they made up a system that didn’t need a pilot. That is negeri auto-pilot. Auto-pilot state. Whoever the president is, there is an auto-pilot mechanism at work.

We can also see the same subject in a more enthusiastic or sympathetic way. Look, there is a precious intangible asset that enables people in this archipelago to organize themselves in the absence of strong power or clear laws. Despite a series of not-very-strong and not-very- good governments since the 1998 Reformasi, Indonesia has survived as a democratic country. This is a priceless achievement, especially compared to the Arab Spring. Of course there are huge problems, but Indonesia hasn’t given up on democracy.

I shall call this intangible asset that enables people to organize themselves despite government absence the ‘Spirit of Indonesia’. It’s a spiritual asset in two layers. First, it is spiritual because outwardly it is intangible, it works without clear demarcations. Secondly, it is also spiritual because inwardly it is realized as spirituality in individuals. Both, the exterior and interior sides of this Spirit have their benefits and dangers. But let us look at the good side!

Even though we started to see democracy at the beginning of the Reformasi as the distribution of corruption, the reviving of local chauvinism, now we are beginning to see its first fruits. Tri Rismaharini is the mayor of Surabaya, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahja Purnama is the governor of Jakarta, and, before, Joko Widodo was the mayor of Solo and the governor of Jakarta. Several other names have also begun to appear. They are the first fruits of democracy.

My appeal to you here is: don’t just look at the president. Because there is a spirit that cannot be seen but is manifesting in the wider compass of the nation, even though it works slowly.


The Spirit of Indonesia is there. Sukarno understood the spirit of the archipelago and formulated it as ‘Pancasila’, the Five Principles. In Indonesia we often use the maxim ‘Sukarno dug the Pancasila from the earth of Indonesia.’ It was a way to stress that Pancasila is not an invention of Sukarno’s. He brilliantly formulated the spirit that had always been there in the social, cultural, and political life of the islands’ inhabitants and refurbished it with modern visions and ideologies (especially socialism and democracy). Of course this is a simplified version of a complex history.

After a series of compromises, especially in response to the challenge of the Islamist groups (the challenge recurred after the Reformasi), a consensus was taken to accept the formulation of Pancasila we understand it today as the foundation of the state. To be frank, the formulation sounds rather strange in its English translation: 1) belief in the one and only God, 2) just and civilized humanity, 3) the unity of Indonesia, 4) democracy guided by the inner wisdom found in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. 5) social justice for all of the people of Indonesia. (The English version sounds more difficult than the Nicene Creed to me.)

In addition to that, our founding fathers also chose a national emblem, the Garuda Pancasila, with a shield representing the state’s foundation and a slogan in its talons: ‘Bhineka Tunggal Ika’ (Unity in Diversity).

This shortened story shows the spirit of unity in diversity. Every diplomat stationed in Indonesia would have learned about this. What I want to add here is another dimension to something that most of you have also heard about. That is the archipelago’s syncretism, as one ancient model of unity in diversity.

The social and political capability to live in diversity was recorded in the Negarakertagama (14th century) as well as preserved in temples from earlier centuries. We have the conjoining Hindu temples and Buddhist temples in Prambanan-Sewu (9th century). We have the Shiva-Buddha characters of many East Java temples (12th-14th centuries). My history teacher at school taught us about those syncretisms in a very positive manner. They are ancient proofs of our unity in diversity.

In today’s Indonesia, we keep seeing some local spiritual practices observed by Muslims or Christians, albeit no longer as intensely as recorded by Niels Mulder or Clifford Greetz about Java. We keep seeing massive pilgrimages to graves, or ‘nyadran’, before the fasting month of Ramadhan, which is not particularly monotheistic. Most people commemorate the death of a family member on the 7th day after it occurs, the 40th day, one year, or three years and integrate Islamic or Christian prayers in the commemoration. In the past, the combining of different practices and tenets used to be more condensed, so that you would see contradictions at play.

Now, I want to highlight the problem of syncretism. Syncretism had succeeded in maintaining peaceful unity in diversity. Syncretism harmonized differences. However, it avoids discussing contradictions. It turns away from internal logical consistency. It doesn’t take logic seriously. It avoids conflicts by eliminating logic from its priorities. In certain stages of Indonesia’s history, it worked. It has proved its achievement at keeping peace, harmony, and unity. The question is: will it still work when facing new challenges?

The new challenges are modernism as well as monotheism, rationalism as well as religious fundamentalism, that are invading at a very high speed and an overwhelming amount in this digital era. The modernist Islamic and Protestant groups have long tried to play down traditional spiritual practices. These days, efforts to eliminate those practices by groups influenced by the Wahabis or American evangelists are becoming stronger. Both religious strains are very modernist in many ways.

From the other side, modern mass education has introduced a new generation of Indonesians to rational thinking – whatever level of rational thinking that may be. Now, they are ready for the language of argumentation (the growth of this new language is accelerated by information technology and social media; nowadays people are debating about everything on social media). They value reason. They value logic more than chaotic inconsistency. However fake or superficial the clarity that they may have reached so far, they value it more than obscurity. When syncretism is perceived as obscurantic, they value it less.

The problem is that while syncretism doesn’t offer clarity, dogmas are very ‘clearly formulated’. People need to feel a sense, or just a sensation, of clarity and dogma gives that to them. The danger is that more and more people are adopting an extreme and simplified view of religion and they are capable of committing violence in the name of God and Truth. They may become involved in terrorism. And this is not only an Indonesian problem. This has become a global problem.

Critical Spiritualism

I have mentioned two of Indonesia’s spiritual assets. Its auto-pilot capacity and syncretism. Both are not without problems. In fact, both share similarities. On the good side, they have managed to maintain social organizations and tensions in the absence of a strong authority or clear regulations. On the other side, they don’t settle their internal logical inconsistencies. They tend to be tolerant as well as permissive. They resort to ‘rasa’ instead of reason. Rasa is the total sum of feeling, senses, empathy, intuition.

The question is again: can we resort to these spiritual assets when facing new challenges? The new challenges are huge and range from ecological problems, possible economic crisis, ingrained corruption, high-cost politics and short-sighted democracy. Those are on the objective and material level. On the ideological level or value system, we see the uprooting of local wisdoms and the radicalization of Islam, partly as a reaction to postcolonialism and globalization.

Many scholars have tried to map the recent phenomena of religious movements. Darwis Khudori describes four types of groups: the radicalist, the gradualist, the tolerant, and the altruist. Siti Musdah Mulia defines three groups: the exclusive, the moderate, and the progressive. Syafi’i Anwar mentions the radicals and the liberals. I personally am not satisfied with the terms ‘altruist’, ‘progressive’, or ‘liberal’, for these categorizations contain ideological biases.

I want to suggest, instead, ‘critical spiritualist’. Critical spiritualism can be adopted both by people within and outside of any religious denomination. It can include traditional penghayat kebatinan (observers of local spirituality) who are very often marginalized by monotheist groups; it can also include the modern agnostics or ‘unbelievers’. It can grow from the spiritual traditions of Indonesia, or from the tradition of institutionalized religions, as well as from a secular or critical thinking tradition like here in the Netherlands.

In Indonesia, the ancient spirit of syncretism is facing its hardest challenge from the language of reason and religion. Many times syncretism cannot answer the challenge because of the very fact that it doesn’t speak that language. Rasa doesn’t speak the grammar of reason and religion, which aims at some kind of logical consistency (or just a fake sense of logical consistency). Can we go back to the time when rasa prevailed? I doubt it.

I doubt that we can go back to the time before the Age of Reason (17th century). Rasa is like the innocence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Age of Reason is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. We cannot go back. We can only long for it.

Since the Age of Rationalism, gradually we have learned to speak the language of logical consistency – no matter whether it is genuine or fake logical consistency. Syncretism is becoming mute. In order not to be speechless, our spirituality – which was very precious for maintaining peace – has to adopt the new language. Spirituality has to adopt critical thinking.

Is it possible? Yes, it is possible. Critical spiritualism is an openness to the spiritual – that is, the unknown, the intangible, the yet-formulated, mystery – without betraying our critical thinking. Critical thinking is a mode of thinking, not an end or a specific content. The spiritual is a never-ending end, or a limitless content. Both are in fact complementary.

But isn’t it true that many indicators of intolerance have increased since Reformasi? Churches have been forced to closed, mosques and compounds of the Ahmadiyah and Shi’ah ransacked, LGBT groups attacked. Yes, horrible things have happened, but they have always been followed by competing discourses and activities and contra-networking by the ‘altruists’, ‘progressive’, ‘liberals’ – or, for me, the critical spiritualists. As far as I know, not a single public case of intolerance has occurred without arousing a wave of argumentation.

Again, we can adopt a pessimistic or an optimistic attitude. A pessimist will say that Indonesians are becoming intolerant. An optimist, like me (because I don’t have a choice to be pessimistic), can see this phenomenon in a different way. Indonesia now is a society developing from a stage of illogical silence toward a stage of loud argumentation searching for logical consistency. If succeeds, it can progress from ancient syncretism to critical spiritualism. If fails, it can regress from spirituality to mere dogmatism.

The Phantom

Once upon a time in a faraway land, there were millions of children who lived with ghost stories. Even though both the rationalists and the religious usually dislike ghosts for moral reasons, this one particular ghost, the very special urban ghost who appeared around the 70s, probably the first ghost born during the military regime, the Flat Face Phantom who draws his cart curiously in the middle of the night… he conveys the moral of his own story, if you dare to listen to him as he stirs the soup with strange things bobbing in it. He could be stirring his own eyes, mouth, nose, and heart… The beauty of a ghost is that it speaks to you in metaphors but you don’t want to take them as metaphors. He said to me: you may be living in a house confiscated by a certain regime from a minority or a political outcast who himself had taken over the house from a fleeing giant who had previously occupied the land of small brown people who probably had envied each other and so on… Our past is never clean and pure. But if you don’t want to see and talk about the stain of your parents and yourself, you will start dropping your eyes, ears, mouth, and heart, and end up with an empty flat face. The ghost of civilization.

Indonesians still love ghost stories. Probably it is just another manifestation of their spirituality, or another way to introduce spirituality to their children. A kind of kindergarten spirituality. Let’s cherish it anyway. Because a good spirit, the Spirit of Indonesia, may arise even from a seemingly problematic existence.