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Local knowledge, Jokowi wrote

Pranoto Iskandar—Founding Director of the Institute for Migrant Rights—argues for the enduring relevance of local knowledge in efforts for democratic renewal in Indonesia. Scrutinizing recent policy decisions and current legal and political structures in Indonesia, the author exposes fundamental tensions that are resolvable only by being sensitive to local knowledge.

Earlier this year, President Jokowi (Joko Widodo) of Indonesia reputedly used the pétungan (counting) system, a Javanese equivalent to astrology, to decide the correct (cocok) day to roll out mass vaccinations. This traditional numerological divination system, which dates to at least the 4th millennium BCE, is based on the belief that there is a parallelism between the universe and the world of humans. This has been the fundamental hypothesis influencing decision-making in traditional Southeast Asian states.

The enduring relevance of local knowledge

Considering its historical embeddedness, it should not be surprising that this type of local knowledge is used in Indonesia's policy-making, despite the common perception that policy-making is exclusively a domain of logic. In fact, The Economist continues to highlight the continuing relevance of local knowledge in Indonesia’s contemporary socio-political life—with the latest focus on the rising popularity of the traditional sultanate—, which base their political claims on tradition. Thus, local knowledge seems inseparable from, and serves as a bedrock for, public life in Indonesia.

Further, it seems plausible that any public policy—from its conception to implementation—is contingent on its synchronicity (cocok) with local knowledge. Without synchronicity, any policy may be ineffectual. However, it is not clear that local knowledge will be taken seriously in these endeavours. Instead, most—if not all—of the political reform initiatives dismiss the analytical potential of local knowledge. Worse, such knowledge is thin on the ground. As such, it is no wonder that social thinkers with any proficiency for performing analytical research are perpetually in short supply.

For this reason, we see excessive reliance on a variety of non-substantive dimensions in the measurement of Indonesia’s national scholarly output. For instance, embellished with American PhDs in political science, the highbrow “Team of Seven” intellectuals is an example of a group of highly educated reformers who independently engineered the Post-Suharto election system. Curiously, the Team of Seven venerated and blindly pushed to replicate the American electoral system, including its idiosyncrasies, such as the Electoral College.

Similarly, the short-lived Constitutional Commission supposedly delivered a brand-new constitution to foment Indonesia’s then blooming democracy. Instead of discerning Indonesian local knowledge, the elitist Commission was too occupied with debating foreign theoretical lenses. One clear implication is that this has unwittingly distracted the Commission’s attention to devote its effort in peripheral questions that have no clear bearing on the advancement of democratic ideals. Further, it is no surprise that no one bothered to chart what lessons could be gained from the Commission.

Local knowledge as a call to find Indonesia’s own path

The reformers’ insistence to blindly replicate anything found in the “developed world” exemplifies erroneous causal reasoning. Since certain Indonesian institutions replicate those that (commonly) exist in the developed world, it is tautological to say that they are the “primary” cause for development. Little did the reformers realize, most institutions are developed incrementally. To some extent, they are nothing more than a series of ad hoc reactions to particular events. In the U.S. context, for instance, it is hardly a surprise that the Federalist Papers are of particular relevance in informing any institutional debate.

The lack of interest in understanding Indonesia’s underlying socio-cultural factors has become emblematic of the post-Suharto phase. Take, for instance, Indonesia’s nonsensical debates on human rights. Our current misunderstanding of the human right to life is one of the best examples. As the most fundamental of all human rights, the human right to life was conceived of in response to flagrant widespread disregard for the sanctity of human life. Rather than finding a way to entrench human rights further, many prominent Indonesian human rights activists advocate capital punishment for embezzlers, as they are deemed gross violators of human rights.

It stands to reason that the failure to properly acknowledge local knowledge would hurt Indonesia’s opportunity to improve the current democratic consolidation, since institutional discrepancies will be inevitable. Various structural problems that plague the process of Indonesian democratic consolidation clearly demonstrate this.

For instance, take Indonesia’s engagement with the rule of law. At its core, the rule of law is meant to equally apply the law following its textual formulation in a strict sense. Therefore, it should not be difficult for any administration to deal with unscrupulous abuse from those who use religious clout to engage in criminal activity. Conversely, it should be absurd to ask why those considered “Godly” should seemingly escape legal sanctions. Clearly, they are being exempted from the rule of law. Properly understanding these failures must be exercised through local knowledge. In this case, a sufficient understanding of Javanese culture is necessary.

Indicative of any peasant society, a Javanese conception of societal relationships is imbued with communal sensibilities that place a premium on social harmony. For a wet rice-based peasant society where everyone’s fate is inextricably linked to each other, maintaining social harmony is a matter of survival. It is therefore imperative that social relationships be conducted within the realm of meneng (ambiguity).

Bearing this in mind, it is obvious that the Western conception of the rule of law that requires a more rigid distinction between what is considered legal and illegal is bound to prove inadequate in an Indonesian context. Accordingly, the reluctance of the then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to either confirm or deny the findings of a fact-finding team in the Chandra Hamzah and Bibit Samad Rianto debacle illustrates the unchanging face of Indonesian politics, where a culture of ambiguity informs the rule of law.

To conclude

The only conceivable starting point for a remedy is to improve the Indonesian intellectual climate, which is notorious for being overcentralized, over-organized, spasmodic, and practice oriented. Throwing off centralistic tendencies may very well likely be the initial step. Then again, the regions would be woefully ill-equipped in the absence of a well-designed and organized center. It is therefore important to strike a balance between providing enough room for a region to be creative and the necessity for the center to provide effective supervision.

The central point here is that institutions in Indonesia are embedded within a specific context, and their context can only be illuminated with sufficient understanding of local knowledge. It is not something too much to ask to take notice of how local knowledge impacts our affairs.

About the author

Pranoto Iskandar
Pranoto Iskandar is the Founding Director of the Institute for Migrant Rights and is an O’Brien Fellow at McGill University Faculty of Law. He was the Inaugural Fellow for The Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies, Malaysia of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and has been a visiting scholar at University of Oslo's Norwegian Centre for Human Rights. He has written, edited and translated several books and articles on international law, constitutionalism, human rights, and migration. His most recent scholarly publications can be found in Social & Legal Studies, Oxford University Comparative Law Forum, and the Journal of Contemporary Asia. Pranoto Iskandar serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Migration and Border Studies and is Advising Editor for Borders and Migrations Studies Online, a multimedia database on human migration.

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