Photographs taken by
Khoo Yi Feng
Photographs taken by
Khoo Yi Feng
This trip to the Indonesian Embassy was organized by Dr Effendy, main coordinator of the Southeast Asia in Context Summer School, who thought that a trip to the embassy would be a useful experience as students would not only get more information about Indonesian culture and society, but would also allow Southeast Asian Studies majors to get a glimpse of the inner workings of embassies and the role that embassies play in the region.
As we entered the Embassy, it was not quite what I had expected. The hall beside the entrance was furnished with a variety of performing arts artefacts, giving one the sense that the place was as much a cultural representative of Indonesia’s presence in Singapore, even as it was a political space. There were no starkly professional, official interiors, but instead, markers of tradition everywhere. In a sense, it felt almost homely. I thought it interesting that Indonesia’s self-identity and its portrayal of itself to the others was such a benign yet culturally rich image. As a political science student, my knowledge on this aspect of Indonesia is limited. Yet, to see how much tradition, myth-making, and religion is a way of life and of being –- not just for the individual, but for the nation –- is intriguing. Would a Western embassy, for that matter, operate on more formal norms?
For example, a story was mentioned about how Indonesians take special precautions at Yogyakarta’s Parangtritis Beach to avoid the hauntings of spirits like the Queen of the South Sea. Similarly, the villagers living near Mount Merapi chose not to evacuate despite obvious danger because the volcano’s gatekeeper, Mbah Maridjan, had not. One gets the sense that the local reality shifts constantly between dimensions of secularity into religiosity, and tradition back into modernity. It was intriguing to see how contradicting concerns surface at different points in time to affect decisions. On that note, I found the embassy a unique institution where the two unlikely fields of politics and culture meet, meld together, and interact.
It was also interesting to me to see how the needs of the economy continue to foster the kind of fluidity that characterizes Southeast Asia. A point was raised about the extent of interdependence between Indonesia and Singapore’s economy. A display of this was the case where workers from a Singapore company working on a project in Indonesia, would likely be Indonesians themselves. Even though this scenario can probably be found all around the world, I thought it interesting especially since Southeast Asia has never had very rigid borders, and work and immigration are among the forces that keep this going today. The extent of this phenomenon is captured by the fact that economic ties are thick and complex; Singapore is the largest FDI investor to Indonesia, also because it is a portal for overseas investment to enter.
Furthermore, as Dr Ismunandar, the Education and Cultural Attaché, mentioned, the large size of the embassy grounds is supposed to reflect the two countries’ large area of shared mutual interest. Despite thorny issues like the haze and the MacDonald House bombing arising between the two countries, I thought that the large area of economic interdependence must be a major stabilizing factor in their bilateral ties.
We also learnt that a prominent social problem in Yogyakarta was youth drug and liquor abuse. Despite the increasing Islamization of Indonesia’s politics in recent years and according government crackdowns, it appeared that these conservative norms had yet to permeate the roots of local life.
Lastly, I was curious about how embassy workers might navigate their own national and cultural identity. One of the speakers, Pak Ramle Ismail explained that he was Singaporean, but that he often travelled, worked, and lived in Yogyakarta. He spoke their language well. His friends and networks were there, and locals mistook him for one of them. He did not get a chance to share how he had come to such a situation, but it made me wonder how one manages to incorporate two distinct cultures into a single identity, especially with deep roots in both. Does the mysticism of life in Yogyakarta create disjoint with the rationalized life in Singapore, with its neatly-categorized races and religions? What determines the dominant culture one prefers? How might such constant mobility breed feelings of displacement and perhaps fracture one’s sense of self-identity? Furthermore, as embassy workers, how do they see themselves personally? They might be full-time representatives of Indonesia, or yet another anonymous immigrant, or integrated into society here and yet never able to fully embrace it.
All in all, the visit was refreshing and challenged many of the expectations and misconceptions I had started out with. Although it would have been interesting to be able to explore other parts of the embassy, I am thankful still, for it being such a unique and thoughtful time.