Mon, 08 Nov 1999

A matter of cultural empowerment

In the new Cabinet, the Ministry of Education and Culture has been renamed the Ministry of National Education, raising speculations as to whether the culture arena will be neglected. Former director general of culture and current chairwoman of the Indonesian Archaeologist Association Edi Sedyawati contributed this article to The Jakarta Post.

JAKARTA (JP): It has been argued back and forth as to whether culture should be taken care of by governments or not. Some people say that culture should be let free to develop itself, without any intervention from a government or any other agencies. That proposition is, to my understanding, at odds with some cultural historical facts, as well as with the present situation in developing and underdeveloped countries.

These countries are suffering from cultural marginalization and underexposure in the world cultural "market". Well-developed countries, such as the United States of America, are very powerful in their cultural industry. They are forceful in the dissemination and marketing of their products, through trade as well as though mass media channels, to the effect that other countries, targeted as consumers, become cultural prey. People from nondeveloped countries, with their still weak cultural industries, are in a helpless position; the more so if cultural development is to be allowed to be entirely directed by the basically commercial free market, without any protection for integrity and principled values.

In these countries, advocacy for good taste and principled values are urgently needed if every nation's culture is to be safe from corruption by the overpowering commercial market. On the contrary, the cultural market needs to be developed into something that promotes good taste and principled values.

On reviewing the history of cultures, one will immediately understand that significantly strong cultures can only be born as the outcome of a role played determinedly by a strong social group (mostly governments, in whatever format, or the class of elites). These groups around the world and in ever period of history acted as patrons and stimulators for cultural development. The great ancient civilizations of India, Egypt, China, Greece, the Incas, the Romans, etc. developed through the support and ideological leadership of a powerful social group.

Likewise, small-scale societies also have their cultural development in the hands of communal leaders. The adat (custom, tradition) in many Indonesian ethnic groups are cultural manifestations that came into being through the consensus of leaders.

Development and maintenance of culture can only be left to the society at large if it has gained a strong foundation within the institutions of the respective society, and no threat of its existence is likely from any direction. By way of example, it can be mentioned that European classical music has become a stable cultural asset since it is respected and loved by the population, and tended by stable institutions such as schools, conservatories, permanent performing groups, etc.

Another example is the arts sector in the United States, which has managed to build an economic kingdom for itself and permeate the whole world. Still another example is the art and customs of Bali. Its strong foundation in religion, the deep respect for religiosity among the population, and strong traditional institutions such as the banjar (village organization) have made Balinese art, including old Javanese literature, a vibrant activity.

Indonesia has played a significant role in international organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These organizations have expressed through several forums their collective position regarding cultural development. They have exerted that each country should be empowered, or empower themselves, to preserve the vitality of their respective cultures. The First Meeting of Ministers of Culture of The Non- Aligned Movement (NAM), held in Medellin, Columbia, on Sept. 4 through Sept. 5, 1997, observed that "notwithstanding the end of the Cold War... new barriers have emerged between the North and the South, globalization, unipolarism, and technological gaps, as well as aggression and occupation, threaten and marginalize our cultures and their national character, and jeopardize our survival as sovereign nations".

Moreover, the ministers "acknowledged that cultural diversity and a plurality of views of the world constitute a major asset to mankind, and provide a contribution for the construction of a new international order". These "rich diversities should be considered as opportunities for cooperation and solidarity rather than reasons for dissension".

The ministers also "emphasized that the media have an important role to play in the universalization of ideas of tolerance, respect for cultural diversity and the right to cultural development", and "to combat the disinformation strategies aimed at producing adverse political effects on member countries of NAM and other developing countries".

An ASEAN committee, namely the Committee on Culture and Information, has recently drafted an "ASEAN Declaration on Cultural Heritage" on the mandate of the Hanoi Plan of Action, adopted by the ASEAN Heads of State and Government in Hanoi on Dec. 15, 1998. The declaration is a part of the aim "to promote ASEAN awareness and its standing in the international community", and is due to be adopted by the year 2000.

In fact, it is expected to be signed by the ASEAN Ministers of Foreign Affairs in November 1999. The committee is fully aware of the threat of cultural loss, rapid deterioration of living traditions of creative and technical excellence, knowledge systems and practices and the disappearances of worthy heritage structures due to tropical climates, inappropriate development efforts, the homogenizing forces of globalization and other major changes taking place in ASEAN societies. The declaration includes a guarantee for the protection, preservation, and promotion of each Member Country's cultural heritages. It also states that each country shall formulate and adopt policies, programs, and services, and develop appropriate technical, scientific, legal, administrative and financial measures for this purpose.

A development policy of a state can only be issued by the respective government in its widest sense (in its legislative, executive and judicial aspects). The development policy should not neglect the cultural aspect, since culture is a referent for a nation. The strength of a nation lies both in its capacities to be competitive (in science and economic matters that are founded in universal principles), as well as in its cultural integrity (in which values, taste and style, are of a specific character).

For the Republic of Indonesia, the cultural problem at hand is yet to be addressed seriously, with an urgently needed substantial facilitation on the government's part. The first problem is that of nation formation, which includes the formation of a national culture, and this again includes at the same time the management of empowering the diverse local cultures and enhancing intercultural understanding and appreciation within the nation. These dynamics of cultural development should be guarded against distortions that may come from the commercial market. The second problem is that of survival; facing the aggressive marketing of the products of cultural industry, mostly of the popular kind, from strong industrial countries.

For those intent on improving the Indonesian cultural industry, especially those advocating high quality and principled values, cannot be left to businesspeople, workers, and artists alone, because those endeavors will not yield immediate returns. It needs a synergy of potentials in the field and a government program. In this case, there should be a form of protection against unfair competition in the cultural industry. In a wider sense, actors and producers of cultural substance (in the form of ideas, deeds and things), in whatever mode of manifestation it is expressed (direct or mediated), should be empowered by adequate means and dignity.

For the population at large, a cultural awareness raising is an obvious demand, since the understanding of the substance and problems of our own culture is decreasing all the time. A nation with a strong culture only, which is determined to retain its culture's existence can be culturally resilient, one of the important sources of a nation's sovereignty.