May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

‘I am an Indonesian citizen!’

A group of people pose smiling for someone taking a photo on their phone.


What does exercising citizenship in Indonesia's democracy look like?


In 1997, a lively public meeting took place in Semarang to commemorate the Youth Pledge of the early anti-colonial movement. The Solo poet Moedrick M Sangidoe read out a poem that started like this:

I am a citizen of a country

No longer clear what kind of country

I am a citizen of a country

(Aku warga sebuah negeri / yang tak jelas lagi wajahnya / aku warga sebuah negeri) 

It went on sarcastically to say he was so numbed by state ceremonies, he forgot he’d only had rotten dry rice to eat. That sounded a bit like the Roman cry ‘I am a Roman citizen’ (Civis Romanus sum), claiming the right to protection. Seven months later, Suharto was forced to step down. 

Citizenship in Indonesia today has evolved beyond the Suharto-era "state ceremonies". (Digitised: Wahid Hasyim)

Citizenship is back in Indonesia. The New Order tried its best to castrate the concept by picturing it as a duty only to obey, but democracy is making ordinary people realise they have rights too.

This special edition of Inside Indonesia looks at citizenship. We won’t do ‘civics education’ here – let’s leave that to the school textbooks. Instead, we look at the way flesh-and-blood Indonesians practise it on a daily basis. What do they do? What do they believe? 

Focusing on citizenship is a change from blaming or praising elites for everything that happens in this country. As if people were just passive electoral fodder! After all, if democracy goes well in Indonesia, it goes well because citizens make it work, not just because elites have built the right institutions. Conversely, if democracy worsens, it is also because citizens didn’t do enough to protest the selfishness of their elites.

These articles were among more than fifty presented by Indonesian and foreign researchers at a remarkable conference on citizenship at Gadjah Mada University in December 2016. Of course, the seven we present here don’t cover everything there is to say about this vast subject, but we hope they will open some new perspectives on popular participation in the state. They show that citizenship is the basis of all politics, including in a country in the Global South like Indonesia. We touch on four themes.

Citizens protest. The best evidence that Indonesians have shed the passive New Order idea of citizenship is Zamzam Fauzanafi’s piece on ‘digital citizens’. People in Banten take to Facebook to rage about corruption by their leaders – not always politely, but certainly loudly.

Citizens organise. Hari Nugroho explores a labour union whose demands go far beyond the minimum wage. Maybe like the labour movement that pioneered the welfare state in Europe, these unionists want education and subsidised health care too. Unfortunately, they are not yet pulling in the votes; money politics is the enemy of citizenship.

Citizens volunteer. Vita Febriany looks at a form of New Order citizenship that did survive into the Reformasi era. Local women who volunteered for a 1980s community health scheme turned themselves into valued local leaders. Many are still active today.

Citizens include. Or do they? The next four articles introduce a sense of debate about what is likely the core issue of citizenship anywhere: who belongs, and who doesn’t? On the one hand, as Yearry Panji Setianto shows, some Indonesian citizens are ready to expand the political community to the whole world. Limiting it to one nation-state no longer makes sense. Wealthy, cosmopolitan Indonesians living in America and elsewhere want to contribute to their country as dual-nationality citizens. 

On the other hand, decentralisation has strengthened a xenophobic kind of local citizenship that increasingly rejects Indonesians from other regions. The twin articles by Safrudin Amin, a long read, and Laila Kholid Alfirdaus follow strangers who intend to settle in new communities in North Maluku and Central Java, respectively. There, they face discrimination and even violence. To ‘belong’ there, a national identity card is not enough – one must be recognised by local custom. All around Indonesia today, ‘stranger’ citizens find their national citizenship rights reduced as local politics favours the locally born.

Finally, Chris Chaplin’s study of a middle class religious sect in Makassar raises the question of minorities. An increasingly common theme of public discourse in Indonesia is that the state is a moral community that belongs primarily to adherents of the majority Sunni Islam. Moreover, religious cadres demand that the state to interfere in people’s sexual and religious lives much more than liberals think is desirable.

We hope this edition makes you think as much as it did us. We look forward to your reactions.

Ward Berenschot ( and Gerry van Klinken ( are both researchers at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden.


Inside Indonesia 129: Jul-Sep 2017{jcomments on}

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