How the plague squashes patriotism

Aug 23, 2021

It was weird, like the day after in a disaster movie.  Empty chairs on a red carpet and mike stands sans mikes.  Not a VIP within coo-ee, though their black limos were parked outside the Malang town hall. This was Indonesia’s national day, 17 August and no one was partying.

Eventually, ten guys in a cycling club turned up and sang the national anthem, Indonesia Raya to an empty road at 10 am.  Then the cops stopped the traffic while one played the music on his smartphone while holding a mike connected to a battery-powered speaker.

Some saluted, others turned their motorbikes around and left for more important events.  Yet this little show was touching because it looked real while the Big Bangs of yesteryear were contrived affairs filled with bussed-in schoolkids.

The pandemic is scarifying Indonesia, and not just through death, pain, and bereavement. Apart from pushing the economy into recession and upending President Joko Widodo’s grand plans for administrative reform, it’s also hitting nationalism, faith and learning.

The world’s most populous Islamic state will never be the same once the virus has been tamed.

In better times the Republic’s birthday was celebrated with eruptions of pride and optimism, not quite Americans’ 4 July ebullience though heading that way.  Or was until Covid called.

Though the times are forbidding and the outlook grim, most strived for continuity, stringing up banners, bunting, ribbons and anything which might flap patriotism, brightening the streetscape.  Front fences were painted, verges weeded, and gaudy murals of gritty guerrillas refreshed.

The flag’s name is Merah-Putih (red and white) with its origins five centuries earlier when Java’s Majapahit kingdom used red and white stripes looking much like those on Old Glory.

The bicolour sewn by Fatmawati, the third of Soekarno’s nine wives, was fluttering outside his Jakarta house when the founding president proclaimed independence.  His short speech used to be re-read at city halls across the archipelago with goose steps and parade ground shouting of Merdeka (freedom).

Instead, we got a virtual performance on TV from Jakarta and a spontaneous display.  Apparently, bureaucrats decided to run a small show 90 minutes earlier and then retreat.

All pomp and joys have been paused for the second time.  Last year was lightened by expectations of a dawning ‘new normal’. That sun hasn’t risen. Now the mood is dour as citizens hang bendera kematian (white flags with black crosses) on gateways, hear the ambulance sirens and are shocked when familiar names are called through mosque loudspeakers.

Faith has been a casualty as the once sustaining certainties crumple.  While the Covid tsunami was surging across the northern hemisphere the then health minister Dr Terawan Agus Putranto assured all would be well provided the people prayed.

Although a Protestant he addressed a national Islamic conference to get his belief endorsed. Present was vice president Ma’ruf Amin who spoke of clerics – including himself – reciting the qunut (prayer against calamities).  He told journos: ‘That’s why the coronavirus is staying away from Indonesia.’

Instead, it rushed in with a roar louder than in nearby nations. Nor has the deity interceded as petitioned by Indonesia’s six approved faiths. Fatalists arguing the plague is the almighty’s curse on sinners, struggle to explain why carers are dying – 545 doctors and 445 nurses till the end of July.

One of the five pillars of Islam is making the pilgrimage to Mecca. (The others are living a godly life, praying, caring for others and self-purification.) In 2019 more than 220,000 flew to Saudi Arabia for the hajj. Millions want to participate but numbers are contained by quotas.

Last year and this year, Jakarta grounded flights to the kingdom, leaving a deep and lasting pain in individuals and their relatives.

Extended families save for decades so one or two can make the overseas trip of a lifetime and return with the honorific Haji and new status. It’s usually the elderly who participate so thousands will now go to their graves without fulfilling their obligation of cleansing all sins before meeting their maker.

Indonesians are communal people and seldom seen alone. Wakes draw crowds of mourners and prolonged prayer.  Now visits to comfort the sorrowful are banned.  Bodies can’t be washed by family. They’re interred in plastic-wrapped coffins.  They should be shrouded so the corpse is in contact with the earth.  The only witnesses are gravediggers.

Traditions once lost aren’t always recovered at full strength.

Most churches are shuttered with parishioners urged to head home, stay and pray.  Without the support of a congregation and inspiration from the pulpit, the spirit weakens.

Schools and unis are running online learning.   Indonesia has low internet penetration rate for the region.  Connections are mainly 3G and slow.  Censorship hampers learning – with Vimeo educational programmes banned because the hosting service won’t delete occasional nudity.

A major problem is with staff moving classroom techniques online, with disastrous results according to academics Muhammad Zuhdi and Stephen Dobson:

‘Many (teachers) have not been trained to give students full learning responsibilities within a normal classroom, never mind in an online environment. They have struggled to gain students’ attention over time … They have found it even more challenging to assess whether students have been learning.’

So students are set weekly assignments and left to learn by themselves.  No big issue for the disciplined and determined with space to study and supportive elders, but others will flounder.

It’s difficult to tell how families are handling kids at home, though anecdotally not well. Only parents with skills, time and temperament, able to follow syllabi and maintain focus can cope. The fear is real: Teens who miss a year or more of education will be ill-equipped to help the nation’s recovery.

Even before Covid struck UNICEF was reporting around 4.4 million aged 7–18 missing school. A Lowy Institute 2018 review dubbed RI education ‘a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for an internationally competitive system.’

This year Education Minister Nadiem Anwar Makarim told the media he doesn’t want to see the ‘loss of an entire generation and the gap between the haves and have-nots becoming insurmountable:

‘Distance learning will at least in the short term have a negative impact on educational outcomes and qualities because it takes a long, long time for people to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning.’

Signs of any adaptation are still difficult to detect. But at least the Merah-Putih keeps flying.  Tragically so do the bendera kematian.

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