On a warm day in 1951, my grandfather and his family landed at the old Jakarta Kemayoran Airport to begin his diplomatic service for five years at the Ceylon (as it then was, now Sri Lanka) Embassy in Indonesia. “It was one of the most joyful times of my life,” he used to tell me when I was a child. “The Indonesian people were so friendly.”
With the diplomatic rank of chancellor, during the Sukarno era my grandfather studied the Indonesian language and forged strong relationships between Sri Lankan and Indonesian officials. He enrolled my mother and uncles in the new Jakarta Intercultural School, opening with a dozen students.
After my grandfather retired from the Sri Lanka Overseas Service, he still embodied the qualities of excellence, public service, dignity and honor that still inspire me today. As an American of Sri Lankan descent growing up in California, I would sometimes stare westward under the constellations and think about that big, friendly country across the Pacific Ocean, which my grandfather used to describe in such respectful words.
When he passed away, I moved to London, then to China and Malaysia for a couple years, then at last Indonesia, where I live and work today. After a long search in Indonesia, I finally reunited my mother with her long-lost childhood friend Alda, who was found living in a remote West Kalimantan village 78 km northwest of the Equator. Embracing after 58 years, I wished my late grandfather could have shared our joyful day.
I also visited his old Sri Lanka embassy on Jalan Diponegoro for the first time, finding myself happily touching the very same chancery walls that he used to touch. His faded archival photographs now hang there, capturing the historic friendship of these two new confident republics. I know my grandfather would have been pleased that today, Indonesia has expanded itself to the world’s eighth-largest economy and fourth-largest nation.
We are all so accustomed to hearing the words “Malaysia, truly Asia,” that we forget how much of the Asian story also happened here in Indonesia.
I thought about the historic 1955 Asia-Africa conference that my grandfather helped organize in Bandung, which represented more than one-quarter of the Earth’s land surface and approximately half of humankind. I then realized why Indonesia was the one country selected to be the recent summit host of the Alliance of Civilizations, the United Nations’ global interfaith wing, rather than its small neighbor.
The same applies to Indonesia’s elected seats on the powerful G20 and the UN’s prestigious Security Council.
With apologies to Malaysia, it’s worth considering to what extent Indonesia has also earned the “truly Asia” mantle, as well.
In the 20 years since Malaysia first marketed the slogan back in 1999, they still define it as follows: “No other country has Asia’s three major races, Malay, Chinese, Indian, plus various other ethnic groups in large numbers.” The problem, of course, is that deep down, there’s a growing sense among Asians that with Malaysia’s brain drain of ethnoreligious minorities, its best days are already behind it.
In addition, Malaysia’s newly elected government has once again rejected the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or UNICERD, which guarantees “the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law” — one of the last 14 nations on Earth to refuse to ratify it. (Indonesia ratified UNICERD in 1969.)
Certainly, Indonesia doesn’t have the largest Chinese or Indian-origin populations outside China and India, but they are rather substantial populations. Indonesia’s diversity also comprises over 360 ethnic groups, 707 languages and at least 1,200 documented religions.
For example, when I recently dry-tested the “Indonesia, truly Asia” slogan at a lecture I delivered in New Delhi, the audience burst into knowing laughter. Indeed, Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Hindus outside the Indian subcontinent.
But instead of obsessing about population sizes and demographic percentages, it’s worth exploring how other countries also exemplify “truly Asia”. As the scholar Parag Khanna writes in his new book, The Future is Asian, “To describe something as ‘Asian’ can often have opposite connotations: elegant or unsophisticated, precise or chaotic, risk-averse or bold. Not only do outsiders have divergent understandings of ‘Asian,’ but so, too, do Asians.”
Indeed, we should therefore acknowledge Indonesia’s plentiful contributions: the world’s fifth-largest contributor to global gross domestic product growth, the only Southeast Asian country consistently ranked “politically free” by Freedom House, and some of the most resilient people on Earth.
In this moment of geopolitical confusion, Indonesia has also given Asia hope for the future: with a massive voter turnout of over 81 percent, the electorate just handed a landslide majority victory to Indonesia’s incumbent President Jokowi, who was imperfect, but campaigned on transforming into an inclusive nation that works for all.
It was the world’s largest direct presidential election, in the world’s third-largest democracy, comprising over 193 million voters, throughout 810,000 polling stations from Sabang to Merauke — the equivalent distance from London to Afghanistan.
Last month, in Indonesia’s worst riots since 1998, eight people were killed, 700 were injured, and damage to Jakarta cost Rp 465 million (US$32,300).
Every weekend I call my parents, so I asked my mother what my grandfather would have thought about the violence. “He would have been disappointed,” she answered. “In the old days Indonesians weren’t so angry.” I remembered Indonesia’s national motto in Sanskrit. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, I thought. Unity in Diversity. I connected it to my own country’s national motto: E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One.
Nevertheless, Indonesia should still contain extremism and majoritarianism more effectively. Indonesia’s local governments should also legally recognize all ethnoreligious and indigenous minorities, because they are also equal constitutional citizens of this country.
Despite manifold complex challenges, Indonesia’s leadership in Asia firmly elevates it to one of the world’s great nations. And no matter who you voted for, this year’s immense exercise in democracy was a gift to every Indonesian who believes in unity in diversity.
Truly Asia, indeed.