Nov 13, 2018 Last Updated 6:23 AM, Nov 5, 2018

When is a public holiday not a holiday?

When is a public holiday not a holiday?

Phil King

   Friendly competition on Awakening Day
   Phil King

To all appearances May 2008 was a rather reflective month for Indonesia. Newspapers were full of ‘State of the nation’ and ‘How far have we come?’ editorials and opinion pieces. Academics and armed forces commanders jostled for column space in relation to one of two events: the 100 year anniversary of Indonesia’s National Awakening (20 May) and the ten year anniversary of the fall of Suharto (21 May).

The second celebration requires little explanation, the event it marks being within living memory for most of us. The first, and somewhat more obscure celebration, relates to the foundation of Indonesia’s ‘first’ nationalist organisation: Budi Utomo. Founded by Javanese aristocrats in 1908, Budi Utomo is credited in Indonesian history textbooks as the first in a succession of nationalist organisations that would eventually lead to the end of Dutch colonial rule. The proclamation of the day as a holiday is credited to Sukarno and Ki Hajar Dewantara, for whom it was an attempt to revive national cohesiveness in the face of renewed Dutch aggression in 1948.

This is not an article about what the pundits were saying about these two anniversaries. It is questionable how many people were listening anyway. It is hard to digest opinion pieces when stuck in a petrol queue, which was where many people were as shortages spread across the country in the face of an impending price hike. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that many more Indonesians were glued to the television set on 14 May when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) called a special cabinet meeting to discuss fuel prices than they were on 20 May when he took over the nation’s airwaves for his National Awakening Day address.

Seeking awakening

I covered over 250 kilometres of rural Java on 20 May and encountered a distinct lack of both Awakening enthusiasm and petrol. The petrol had all but vanished as a result of restrictions put in place to stem bulk buying and hoarding. Those tilting timber and chicken wire boxes with ‘bensin’ (petrol) clumsily scrawled on them—there is not a village in Java without at least one—looked derelict without a family of gleaming bottles inside. Needless to say the roads were quieter than usual.

As for Awakening Day itself, the fishers down at the co-op in Watu Karung, Pacitan were more concerned about the small catch. The kids in Donorejo, Wonogiri, just shook their heads when I asked if there had been any celebrations. No painting new white lines on the road or red and white bunting streaming through the trees alá Independence Day. Up in Semanu, Wonosari, the owner of a local eatery laughed about the idea of closing for a holiday. Like most people in Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta, she worked seven days a week all year with the exception of Idul Fitri. Indonesia’s Buddhists were busy celebrating their New Year so I knew they had their hands full for the day. Thank goodness for the scouts: they were about the only sign of Awakening celebration I managed to catch all day. But they were all asleep under their tents when I stopped by.

This was perhaps more the author’s fault. You need to be an early riser to catch an Indonesian official public holiday ritual. 6:30am was not early enough to catch the brief Awakening ceremony held by the Pacitan Surf Club as the precursor to the third annual Hidden Point Surfing Competition in SBY’s hometown of Pacitan. The ceremony was clearly not as important as the serious business of surfing. To my mind, the surfing displayed all the essential elements of the Awakening message. SBY had used the nation’s airwaves on Tuesday afternoon to tell us all that Indonesia was a ‘bangsa yang bisa!’ (a nation that can!). His local Pacitan surfing community was doing it.

The community had found their own sponsors for the event: everything from a major surf label to a local fried chicken shop. (There was some dismay, however, that SBY’s nephew, a keen local surfer, had turned down requests from the committee to secure presidential promotion on the grounds that it could be construed as nepotism.) The local government had contributed through a program titled Pemberdayaan Pemuda dan Pembinaan Olah Raga (Youth Empowerment and Sports Development), much to the dismay of the commentator who tried twice to get that longwinded phrase out before giving up with an ‘Aduh, namanya panjang sekali’ (Geez, the name’s really long). Surfers from Pangandaran, West Java, and Bali had beaten the petrol crisis by cramming into cars and coming over to unite the nation through surfing.

If people weren’t working, it didn’t mean they were enjoying a day off: unemployment is not a holiday.

That the contest was running on the 100 year anniversary of National Awakening Day was merely a coincidence. The truth of the matter is that for the most part, Indonesian national holidays are not holidays in the sense of being days when people sit back and put their feet up. In the hundreds of villages stretching back to Yogyakarta along the southern coast of Java, everyone was at work. If they weren’t, it did not mean they were enjoying a day off: unemployment is not a holiday. The same story applies for much of the country. Unless you are a public servant, the odds are you will be at work.

Little traditions

This is not to say that Indonesians are averse to holidays. The reticence just applies to the official ones, those days that are better identified as upacara (ceremony) rather than libur (holiday). The former may be marked in red on the calendar, but for many they mean little more than an early morning flag raising ceremony and a front page story in the paper the next day.

On the other hand, all along the south coast of Java there is a robust ‘little tradition’ of holidays—village cleansing ceremonies, festivals linked to the myth of the Queen of the Southern Ocean, weddings, inauspicious days when many south coast fishers choose to stay ashore, and more recently, even an annual surfing contest. Discussion of these holidays will occasionally turn up in the human interest section of the newspaper, but they are not the stuff of presidential addresses.

The little tradition holidays are so dispersed in time and space that it is hard to imagine them as part of a national celebration despite the fact that it is easy to recognise common patterns from one place to another. Piecing together what these holidays—the ones where people actually stop working—really mean to people might produce richer insights into ‘the state of the nation’ than those to be gained through formulaic annual state rituals.     ii

Phil King (acicisjogja@jmn.net.id ) is currently serving as the Resident Director for the Australian Consortium of ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in Yogyakarta.


Inside Indonesia 92: Apr-Jun 2008



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