By: Madeleine Setiono

“What threatens democracy?” my political science professor asked. This was back in 2016, just in time for the US elections. 

One of my classmates said nationalism. I looked around and saw the class nodding in agreement– except for me. I felt like the only person in a stand-up comedy show who didn’t get the punchline. How can nationalism be… bad

Growing up in Indonesia, I remember my elementary school teachers’ pep talks, encouraging us to cinta tanah air (love the nation) and menjunjung tinggi nilai nasionalisme (uphold nationalism) by excelling in school.

Every August 17th, the Independence Day ceremony address went like this:

“In 1945, our independence heroes fought in wars so that we can have freedom and peace. But that does not mean that we do not have battles to fight anymore! We are still responsible to fight for our independence from laziness, so we can mengharumkan nama bangsa (honor our nation)!”

It was the norm to be a nationalist in Indonesia. You could be a conservative Muslim cleric, a liberal LGBTQ activist, a tech junkie or a mega-church pastor, and you could be a self-declared nationalist. So, you can imagine my horrification when I learned that the word “nationalism,” in the United States, conjures the image of angry, gun-carrying, immigrant-hating white men instead of kids smiling in red and white uniforms.

We have been told from a young age that as Indonesians, we must honor our country through our good deeds. When Rich Brian became an international phenomenon, Indonesians quickly attributed his success to his Indonesian nationality. It didn’t matter that he was rapping about things that are supposedly furthest away from generally accepted ‘Indonesian values,’ or that he was producing music in California. It only mattered that he was Indonesian, so his every accomplishment is Indonesia’s to take pride in too.

The Indonesian idea of ‘honoring the nation’ implies that our good work or personal accomplishments are to be taken credit for by our country.

I couldn’t accept that a country that boasts an infamously high stunting rate (37% of children under the age of 2 or almost 9 million children) is free-riding on its children’s achievements. Since then, I rolled my eyes every time I saw a social media post attributing one’s academic achievement (such as winning the science olympiads or whatnot) to their “Indonesian-ness.” I was convinced that the ideology I was brought up with was outdated. I saw it as an ignorant nationalist propaganda; one that purposefully romanticizes a person’s relation to their country in order to extract their efforts and then be able to take credit for them.  

One day in November 2018, I went into a lecture discussing Vietnamese Soap Opera for extra credit, which turned out to be one of the most eye-opening lectures I’ve ever had. In the middle of her lecture, the speaker said:

“Vietnamese soap operas center around rags-to-riches tales which are considered a truly ‘Viet’ success in which their citizens’ individual triumphs amount to Vietnam’s overall success.”

I paused to notice the parallel between her statement and my experience with Indonesian nationalism. While we may not have soap operas that glamorize entrepreneurship, the pep talks I received in school convey the same message. In the West, an entrepreneur’s success serves to be the hallmark of capitalism and the free market. If anything, entrepreneurship often becomes material for anti-state, free-market, conservative arguments– certainly not something commonly attributed to the country’s performance or success. 

But the narrative is different in Indonesia and Vietnam. When the free market entered these two countries, it was not received as an antithesis of love for country. Instead, it augmented the idea of nationalism itself. If we recall that all of this happened back in the 80s, after arduous decades of wars in both countries, it only made sense that the Indonesian and Vietnamese people needed a fresh start. These were people who sacrificed their lives to gain independence and security at all costs. Now that the war was all over, the people needed a reason to believe that their fight was all worth it despite being left in economic and political hardship.

That fresh new hope was capitalism, and what could better tell its tale than a good story?

For the longest time in Vietnam, a person’s success was parallel to their military rank. When the free market economy started to enter South Vietnam after the Doi Moi reform of 1986, it was a message that needed a medium. Meanwhile, Indonesia was looking for its identity in the midst of the Asian Tiger capitalism and the cold war. The nation needed something to hold on to— a motto, slogan, or campaign to spur people into action and instigate economic growth. 

Thus, the tale of the marriage between nationalism and capitalism was born. 

A good story needs to do more than  carry a message. It needs the flexibility to permeate multiple layers of cultural variations; to intertwine itself with what was familiar to the audience. The same message can be told in multiple different ways across the world. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Genesis, of a God who created human beings out of the “dust of the earth,” while Ancient Chinese mythology tells the story of the primeval goddess Nu Wa who created beings out of clay. The myth of “Lutung Kasarung” from Indonesia is inherently another version of the Western tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” Vietnamese soap operas and Indonesian pep-talks are just two versions of the same message.

I realized that the values I was taught in school were not pointless nationalist propaganda. These values represent something that were then-foreign but had to be adopted for Indonesia to grow as a country. More importantly, these values ultimately represent hope itself.

Perhaps, this was the only way Indonesians and Viets at that time could believe in the promises of prosperity. “Nationalism” continues to be a tale that is still told until this very day— even in today’s era of smartphones and global connectivity. The way Indonesian startups frame their presence as contributors to Indonesia’s welfare is interesting, to say the least. While most American startups focus on giving consumers the best possible experience, Indonesian startups almost always incorporate a nation-building rhetoric in what they do; and look where this story has taken us.

Indonesia recently launched a 1000 startups movement to enhance entrepreneurship and is now home to four out of ten Southeast Asian tech unicorns.

This is a quote taken from Nadiem Makarim, the Founder and CEO of GO-JEK— Indonesia’s first tech unicorn:

“Gojek is not just a business. Gojek is a movement to advance Indonesia through technology.”

In another instance, Fajrin Rasyid, Bukalapak’s Co-Founder said;

“In my opinion being a decacorn or unicorn is not what we see as our main goal. Bukalapak’s main and nearest agenda is how we can keep growing and advancing SMEs in Indonesia.”

Bizzy Indonesia, a B2B e-commerce and distribution startup

Modalku, one of Indonesia’s biggest P2P lending platforms

I realized that the seemingly distinct definitions of freedom and independence I had learned in Indonesia and adopted in America convey the same message of hope — entangled in harmony. The independence day speeches that I used to consider as foolish was, in fact, a meaningful story that led us to where we are today; an Indonesia where you can get any food delivered or any item sent by a few taps on your phone, where you can pay for almost anything by scanning a barcode. An Indonesia where nothing seems impossible. 

This August 17th, more than anything else, I’m grateful to have grown up with this story. While it is undeniable that there are things that we still lack in this land of ours, it is also evident that we have and can accomplish great things. Unbeknownst to me before, the concept of “nationalism” instills in me the courage to create things that are bigger than myself. “Nationalism” shows me that that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Madeleine Setiono graduated from University of Michigan with a double degree in International Studies and Economics. Deeply passionate about the future of Indonesia’s youths, she dealt with social and cultural affairs as an intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (KEMENLU) and Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia (Kantor Staf Presiden RI).

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