By Mohani Niza

The leading Indonesian thinker Goenawan Mohamad spoke in Kuala Lumpur last evening.

The event called ‘Goenawan Mohamad: Democracy in a Polarised Age” was organised by the public policy institute Research For Social Advancement (REFSA) and facilitated by Malaysian writer Eddin Khoo.

You may know Mr Goenawan as the founder and editor of Tempo, Indonesia’s weekly political and news magazine that was banned by president Suharto during the New Order regime. It has since been permitted for publication and has a thriving readership till today.

Mr Goenawan is also a poet, essayist and playwright and his thoughts and opinions are far-reaching. During the talk, Mr Goenawan exhibited intelligence and grace and was neither pretentious nor arrogant. He spoke humbly and admitted that he had more questions than answers.

He once wrote: “Today, democracy is increasingly like a half-remembered love letter. It begins with fresh passion, anticipating a warm and honest conversation—and then time wears it away. As an expression, words, and performance, democracy has lost the thrill. And yet it retains its resilient, albeit confused, hope of rebound (from Reviewing the Demos in Democracy).

Below are some interesting points from his talk.

On democracy:

He said: “Democracy is an unfinished project of freedom and justice” and that “politics is always becoming”. Therefore, democracy is a constant struggle worth fighting for.

On Jokowi’s second presidential victory and the current political climate in Indonesia:

“I am disappointed by Jokowi, but then I am always disappointed in politics,” Mr Goenawan said to laughter from the packed audience.

He also said that the religious politics in Indonesia is “very troubled”, citing the example of former Jakarta governor Ahok who was thrown into jail on flimsy charges of “religious blasphemy.”

On ‘New Malaysia’:

Mr Goenawan said Indonesia is elated of ‘New Malaysia’ and thinks Malaysia is lucky to have Mahathir back again as its Prime Minister.

On the internet and social media:

Mr Goenawan noted the increasing rise of the internet and social media, asking: “Will the internet help or harm democracy?”

On the concept of a unified citizen:

He said there is no such thing as a unified citizen as society will always be polarised.

On the myth of people having only one identity:

Mr Goenawan quoted the late thinker Edward Said who said: “No one today is purely one thing.” (Here is the link to Said’s full quote ).

Take Indonesia, for example, Mr Goenawan said. The island of Java is huge and contains so much diversity, including many languages.

On the concept of race:

Culture is a process but race is not, and compared to class which contains fluidity, race is fixed – “an artificial fixation.”

On the concept of ‘Guided Democracy’ adopted by former Indonesian president Soekarno:

Mr Goenawan said: “The concept of guided democracy was abused and Soekarno made many mistakes.”

(In 1959, Soekarno sacked most of the cabinet and introduced his own cabinet line-up in an effort to to tighten his authoritarian grasp of Indonesian society. More about that here).

On identity politics:

He said: “Identity politics is exclusionary” and that even in feminist and black movements, identity politics has become repressive and a source of oppression.

Asked by an audience member on how Malaysia can dismantle its identity politics which runs across racial lines, Mr Goenawan said: “Change the constitution. The constitution must be de-ethnicised.”

(In Malaysia, the Bumiputras which make-up the majority of the country’s ethnic group, have certain socio-economic privileges which are enshrined in the constitution, giving them leverage in certain areas such as education and business).

On education:

Mr Goenawan said that authoritarian societies use schools as a propaganda machine. In order to obtain a good education, we must look beyond schools alone. He said: “Education that does not emancipate us socially and intellectually is not an education.”

He added that a good education must also include art and literature.

On the role of religion in democracy:

Islam has a lot of progressive elements, he said, especially in Sufism which is in direct contrast to the fanatical school of thought of Wahabism.

He told us to take a look at the glory days of Islam: for example, Arab text used to be translated into Greek and exported to Europe, but now “tragedy has struck” and the Islamic legacy has taken a nosedive.

Malaysia, too, had its glory days, but now it’s gone as “pettiness took over.”