I attended Dino Patti Djalal’s farewell gathering this past week. He and his lovely wife, Rosa, are soon off to Washington, DC, where Dino will serve as Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States, and I can’t contain my sense of pride that we have him to represent us in the world’s most powerful nation.
It is not only because he is probably the youngest Indonesian ambassador ever to fill such an important position or because he speaks so eloquently — though these are useful tools in the world of diplomacy — but mainly because I think he and Rosa are the ideal faces to represent our country on the international stage.
Modern, intelligent, open-minded and optimistic, they embody the best of Indonesia, and I hope their presence in Washington will reinforce America’s view of this country as a modern, dynamic and moderate nation that can play a significant role in global politics that are increasingly marked by religious extremism and a growing divisiveness.
Indeed, Indonesia’s image can only benefit from the couple’s energy, confidence, affability and the ease with which they move in international settings. I don’t doubt for a minute they will work hard to raise the country’s profile and improve America’s understanding of Indonesia as more than a place where natural disasters occur and terrorists breed.
My concern, however, is what happens when they actually succeed in promoting Indonesia as a young, vibrant and modern country with endless potential and enormous resources that is ready to take on the world, when in fact we are anything but. The image that we project — in the reassuring posture of our president as he struts the world stage, in the smart and indomitable spirit of former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and soon in the genial and energetic figure of our young ambassador — has little correlation with the reality behind the brand that is Indonesia.
Dino’s farewell speech reflected this concern. Even as he is optimistic about the path ahead and where the country is going, the fact is that Indonesia is at a crossroads, pulled between the desire to progress and embrace modernity and the inclination to retreat into conservatism and orthodoxy. Between a nationalism that is open-minded and inclusive and one that is narrow-minded and inward looking. Between forces that are impatient to implement democratic values and those nostalgic for firm authoritarianism. Between those who wish for pluralism and those who are happier if the majority calls the shots.
It is a battle of ideas and aspirations constantly played out in discourses at all levels, fanned by a noisy and lively media and hyperactive social networks. My worry is when these battles of ideas are seized upon by the forces in power as an opportunity to turn reactionary tendencies into political tools of repression; an opportunity to transform dynamism into static orthodoxy and an insidious means to inject into the nation’s system a particular value at the expense of our collective interests.
It’s one thing when groups clash over their differences. A democracy creates room to allow for these differences, but also sets up the means for their peaceful resolution, including proper sanctions for those who impose their beliefs through destructive means. But when the government starts taking sides, whether for populist, political or religious reasons, then we are treading on dangerous ground.
When the minister of religion bans the belief of a minority group in favor of the majority, then he is in effect sanctioning intolerance and undermining the country’s pluralist principles and fundamental ideals. When the minister of information goes out of his way to limit freedom of expression and poke his nose into people’s private affairs, then he is draining the life out of the democratic system that gave him the opportunity to be where he is now.
The struggle of ideas and beliefs becomes one-sided when leaders start picking and choosing which battles they wish to champion and which they prefer to push aside. Democracy will become short-lived when legislators draw up laws based on their fear and ignorance of the very meaning of the word, preferring the comfort of a constricting world they understand to the burden of the responsibility and open-mindedness that come with freedom.
I just hope someone like Dino can convince the world we are winning our struggle to keep the country on the path of progress and democracy, that we are not regressing into backwardness and insularity. Because if other countries believe we are on the right path, then we might just believe it ourselves. Good luck.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor and writer. She can be contacted at www.desianwar.com and www.dailyavocado.net.