Ordinary People, Extraordinary Resilience

A Documentary Shows Political Maturity of Indonesian Grassroots

Several international friends have asked the question, how come Indonesia managed a relatively peaceful transition of power over the years? Even following the 1997-98 regime change that involved some dark violent episodes, the country quickly re-established order and peace. Why is that despite the bitter political fights amongst the factions, the nation has not disintegrate nor slipped itself into a civil war?

Academics and political observers may have their answers, but after watching a documentary about Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election dubbed “Yang Ketujuh” or “The 7th” referring to the election that elected the country’s 7th president, I am convinced that the answer lies in the extraordinary resilience and reconciliatory pragmatism of the ordinary Indonesians.

The documentary which was one of the very few of its genre that made its way to the cinemas, zoomed into the lives of four individuals that are struggling everyday to make ends meet. The film skillfully contrasts their struggles with the extravagant campaigns ran by political establishments promising things that were claimed to make people’s live better.

The contrasts perhaps need to be seen way beyond the 2014 general election. Posh political elites have been promising better lives for as long as the country exists – some were sincere, but most others were doubtful. Political campaigns over the last decades have been using grassroots’ aspiration to have a slice of the economic growth pie as its center platform. And yet, in 2014 we still see Pak Sutara, an ojek driver in Jakarta, who was a bajaj driver for 15 years, lives in a space less than 7 square meter with his wife and 5 children. We still meet a 60-year old Bu Nita working to wash other families’ fancy clothing for less than $40 a month. There are also the likes of Pak Suparno who works as a construction worker with low pay and no protection from the hazards at work. Away from the sprawling urban centers, there are people like Pak Amin who grow crops on state land to make a living.

But the film is not about poverty. It is about hope. It is about political maturity of the grassroots that the country’s political elites and the rest of the country need to learn from. These four characters, albeit with limited access to sophisticated formal education, take their political and democratic rights seriously. Despite her tight budget and simplicity, Bu Nita put on her make-up just to go to the voting booth in the hope that whoever wins the election would provide subsidies to the poor. Pak Suparno stayed until the votes were counted at his voting station, whereas most other fellow citizens enjoyed the rest of the day’s holiday.

The film is also not about political wins or losses. It is about dealing with them and moving on. Most of the characters in the documentary actually voted for the losing camp. They expressed their disappointment, but that was it. No violence, no anger, no continuing rhetoric. After the election, they all continue their lives.

A great portrayal of the democratic maturity in the film was when Pak Amin and his fellow farmworkers discussed the election results in a bamboo hut in the middle of what appear to be a break in a normal working day on the field under the sun. Although they were confused about the loss of their favored candidate, all expressed hope instead of the winning camp, as the country’s top leader, to improve their livelihood – a hope that has been on their mind and many others’ mind for decades.

During the early announcements of quick counts on the election day, both Presidential candidates and their elite supporters claimed victory and were shown singing the solemn “Bagimu Negeri” song, or “To You, My Country” surrounded by nationalistic attributes. Displaying nationalism as such is not bad, but the likes of Bu Nita, Pak Sutara, Pak Suparno, and Pak Amin would much prefer a display of genuine work of the political elites to move on with improving the people’s welfare. Ordinary peoples in this documentary are doing their part to work hard day in and day out. They all make an honest living to feed their families and send their children to school. I hope this is what in the political elites’ minds when they sing “Bagimu Negeri” and doing other display of nationalism. Each day spent in political fights for power is one day lost that could have been used to work to improve people’s livelihood. Indonesia’s political elites are fortunate to have people that are relatively resilient and peaceful – but they should not take them for granted.

Jakarta, 5 October 2014
Michael C. Putrawenas

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