The power of an idea” was emphasized upon me when I first met with Matius Ho, executive director at Institut Leimena, a non-profit organization for the studies of public policies and emerging public concerns, located in Jakarta, Indonesia. “Indonesia is actually just an idea,” Matius said as we sat down to discuss the civic or citizenship education program the organization has been conducting.
Matius related to me the story of American President John F. Kennedy’s address to congress in 1961, namely the famous quote: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” At that time, putting someone on the Moon seemed impossible; but John F. Kennedy had an idea, and starting with the one idea, he was able to move the nation to achieve the goal before the decade was out.
Similarly, Indonesia was just an idea. At the time when the Youth Congress met up in 1928 to push for the independence of the nation from the Dutch, they started out with an imagined community and an idea of a nation. Matius explained that this idea was revolutionary, because the land was so diverse and plural and consisted of many ethnic groups who looked nothing like one another. The power of an idea thus cannot be undermined, for it can create a nation out of an intangible concept.
The purpose of civic education is to educate the public on what it means to be a citizen and the need to maintain and nurture the idea that the founding fathers of Indonesia started with. In the past under the authoritarian regime of President Suharto from 1965-1998, the citizens had no power. While being a citizen now has a meaning , still accustomed to the authoritarian regime, many has yet to learn to be a citizen and relate to the country and the government in a new way. This paradigm has to change and with it’s civic education program, Institut Leimena plan to start by teaching the Constitution.
The Constitution is the basis as the rights and responsibility of the people are written there. Without understanding the constitution, elite powers would be abused and people would never realize that the constitution was totalitarian in nature.
The civic education is currently conducted via 1-2 days seminars in different parts of Indonesia as well as through a citizenship discussion program. In the citizenship discussion program, small groups in the community meet up to talk about problems in the surroundings. In Manado for example, the community identified a problem with their ecosystem as the coral reefs were dying. This in turn affected not only the environment but also the fishermen. They agreed that this was happening due to soil erosion because many of the mangrove trees have been cut down. They then took the discussion to action by planting more mangrove trees.
Stories like the above are then shared to other communities holding citizenship discussion to inspire them. The community in Alor for example realized they too had the same problem after hearing the story from Manado, and they too could be inspired to start a local movement. Ultimately, the hope is to inspire a dream and vision for Indonesia and for citizens to be responsible and motivated to improve their country.