By: Sekar Sanding Kinanthi Joewono | Editor: Prisca Lidya Patty
Meritocracy; a word that has been the pride of capitalistic societies and democracies alike; a word which suggests that success comes as a result of one’s capabilities; that an individual’s worth is only defined by his competence. A seemingly feasible concept, perhaps. However, does it actually exist in the democratic society of Indonesia, or is it just a myth?
Being a pluralistic country with many different races, ethnic groups and cultures, Indonesia, as any other pluralistic societies in the world, is prone to a state of social inequality. In such case, there would be groups who have more access to the available resources than others and hence are considered privileged. The term ‘privilege’ itself is a sociological concept that refers to the special right, advantage, or immunity that is only available to a particular group (Oxford), be it financial or psychological (Kimmel, 2009). In other words, a group is considered privileged when they are granted a special benefit that comes from the disparities in the society.
Living in modern-day Indonesia, interracial disparities might not be as evident as it was in the past. Globalization and urbanization, among others, may contribute to the (seemingly) harmonic coexistence of different races in Indonesia. However, would it be true to say that no particular group is considered privileged anymore?
To answer this question, the society’s perception of success needs to be defined. In one aspect, in a political pursuit for example, we can safely assume that political power is one of the main parameter of one’s success. With that framework, we can now look through the names of the people with the greatest political power in Indonesia: the presidents. It is a common knowledge—or a 71 year-old ongoing joke, rather—that if you want to be a president, you need to be Javanese. All seven of the Indonesian presidents, former and current, are of Javanese descents. The closest person we’ve got to a Non-Javanese president was Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, a Sulawesi-born engineer who succeeded Indonesia’s second President, Soeharto. Though often seen as a Non-Javanese, B. J. Habibie is actually the son of a Javanese noblewoman, and hence, though half Sulawesian, he is also Javanese.
A similar pattern also appears in the ethnic composition of the Indonesian cabinet and cabinet-level officials. From 1945 to 1970, 60.8% of Indonesian ministers are Javanese (Crawford Young, 1976). Moreover, through a series of background checks, 24 out of the 38 members of the cabinet initially elected by Indonesia’s 7th president, Joko Widodo in 2014 are people of Javanese descents (Beritasatu, 2014). From the numbers above, it is evident that people of Javanese descent have been dominating Indonesia’s government since the birth of our nation. Now the question is: are Javanese people dominating due to their merits, or is there more to it?
Quantity-wise, Javanese people make up at least 41% of the whole population (BPS, 2010). In other words, it is obvious that Javanese people have a competitive advantage from demographics alone. But beyond numbers, there are layers of different factors that are at play. History-wise, before the birth of Indonesia, Nusantara (the former name for Indonesia’s vast geographical spread) was ruled under a gigantic Javanese kingdom, Majapahit. Henceforth, Indonesian leaders are often seen as the legitimate successors of former Majapahit kings and thus are generally expected to also be Javanese (Mulder, 1996). This does not stop here. Even in modern times, the New Order era was often criticized as a 3-decade-long attempt of Javanization (also known as Prijaji-zation or Mataramization) by our former president, Soeharto (Thornton, 1972; Mulder, 1996). As a result, ‘Java’ is often seen synonymous to ‘Indonesia’ and therefore, their dominance is merely accepted as a norm in the society.
Back to our initial question: are people of Javanese descents dominating because they are inherently more capable? Perhaps not; their dominance is likely to be a result of an age-old structural flaw, which, by chance, benefits them as a group—In short: privilege.
Now, is privilege essentially wrong? No. The problem with privilege is that, the privileged groups are often reluctant to acknowledge the disparities that they are benefitting from. According to Michael S. Kimmel, living a privileged life is like “running with the wind at your back”, meaning that there is an external force that provides support and sustenance from which you are benefitting, but might be unaware of. With that in mind, the so-called system of meritocracy in Indonesia and most societies might have to be questioned, since the successes and triumphs may not be solely merit-based but rather privilege-based.
But then again, the society is so multifaceted that my hypothesis alone won’t be able to explain all of these phenomena. Even as a Javanese myself, I am merely a single member of the society with many unanswered questions.
Note: This piece of opinion is not meant to discredit anyone’s hard work. However, it needs to be noted that privileges for some groups do exist and that acknowledging these privileges is a key to achieve a more equal and just society.
Sekar Sanding Kinanthi Joewono is a Junior Analyst at Badan Otonom Economica and a cat-lady in the making. Catch her on @sekarjoewono for rants about the economy, pop culture, the patriarchy and her 9 cats.
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